Their View

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Big plans for downtown


The unveiling of a new draft Missoula Downtown Master Plan last month presents downtown residents, workers and visitors with a vision of a vibrant urban core that both preserves its unique history and adapts to the modern needs of a growing populace. It’s the result of hours of community meetings and public input — with more than 1,000 individuals participating in various planning events during the weeklong public design workshop in January alone — and there remains plenty of time and opportunity to weigh in before a final draft is completed.

As these ambitious plans wend their way to final approval, the looming question is how to pay for them.

As a community, Missoulians may all agree that, say, electric streetcars would make a good addition to downtown transportation options, or that more parking garages are needed. But the burden of paying for most public amenities falls almost entirely on the backs of property taxpayers, and in recent years, it’s become clear Missoula cannot continue to rely on this time-worn tax system.

That’s why any realistic discussion about making substantial improvements to Missoula’s urban infrastructure — streets, sidewalks or parking spaces — ought to include due consideration of how to more equitably pay for them.

Unfortunately, current funding options are limited.

The Montana Legislature recently approved a statewide infrastructure package that contains some money for local projects, but it’s not nearly enough to take care of all the needs in every community, and almost certainly will not help Missoula realize its entire downtown vision. The most recent report produced for the Montana Infrastructure Coalition determined that repairing just the highest-priority water and wastewater infrastructure in the state would cost about $1.5 billion. The same report noted that the Montana Department of Transportation pegged the costs of new construction and maintaining existing Montana roads and bridges at about $14.8 billion through 2022. The 2019 Legislature provided funding for $2.7 billion in infrastructure projects.

Meanwhile, a local option sales tax remains a nonstarter, having been shot down once again in the most recent legislative session. Although “resort towns” such as Whitefish and Gardiner are allowed to collect a resort tax of up to 3%, generating millions of dollars to help defray the wear and tear on local infrastructure from legions of out-of-town tourists, communities with populations of more than 5,500 are still not allowed to make use of this option under current state law, and there appears to be little appetite to change that at the state level.

So it’s up to local government, private businesses and nonprofits to work together with state and federal agencies to identify Missoula’s most critical infrastructure needs, now and in the future, and hash out a plan to pay for important projects. To that end, the new Missoula Downtown Master Plan is an indispensable guide that ensures these various entities are all working off the same page and toward the same goals.

Missoula’s current downtown master plan is about 10 years old, and while it contains some goals that have yet to be met, it’s safe to say that the downtown and surrounding areas are flourishing in large part thanks to this guiding document. The new draft plan notes that the current Master Plan recommendations “resulted in more than $850 million in private and public investment within the Downtown area.”

Indeed, the past decade has seen a boom in downtown activity, from new development to enhanced public facilities such as accessible sidewalks, new parking structures and modernized parking meters.

What will the next decade bring? It’s up to Missoulians to decide. The 300-plus page draft plan contains a range of intriguing ideas:

— Parking remains high on the public radar. The report devotes more than 30 pages to different parking solutions, from building new parking garages on the Hip Strip and near the railroad tracks to instituting a parking tax.

— Convert the one-way streets to two-way avenues.

— Add trees, landscaping and outdoor seating.

— Encourage murals and building design that “activates the alleys,” opening them up for small shops, galleries, etc.

— The report also notes a number of ways to encourage people to use alternative transportation to free up parking, from shuttles to a streetcar or trolley.

— Develop surface parking lots or single-story buildings into multi-story buildings while preserving historic facades.

— Encourage a greater mix of uses. Jason King, senior project director and principal at consultant Dover, Kohl & Partners, noted that Missoula zoning currently discourages mixed uses in many places.

— Add a Caras Park gateway feature at the intersection of West Front and Ryman streets.

— Enhance river access points and areas under bridges with “way finding” signage, and replace some pavement with brick pavers, possibly including designs that pay homage to beaded patterns used by Native American tribes in western Montana.

The full draft plan is available online at The process of putting together the new plan kicked off last October with a series of community meetings hosted by the Downtown Missoula Partnership. If strong community buy-in continues, a final version could be in place before the end of this year.

When asked recently to vote on whether the draft plan is “on the right track,” a crowd at the Wilma Theatre said “yes,” with 66% doing so “with high confidence” and another 23% doing so with low confidence. Another 7% were not sure and only 4% voted “no.” These strong approval numbers point to a strong plan. But it’s easier to support certain projects when the costs are obscure.

The draft downtown plan is bold and creative. Missoula must be equally bold and creative in coming up with solid way to pay for this vision.

— The Missoulian