New digs 

Missoula Redevelopment Agency shifts focus

It may be hard to imagine today, but just 25 years ago “this city had turned its back on the river,” says Ellen Buchanan. During the ’70s, a wrecking yard sprawled between what is now Missoula’s carousel and the Orange Street bridge, and open sewers dumped into the Clark Fork River through 1965. The downtown didn’t fare much better; vacant buildings haunted the horizon and the sidewalks beneath them stood empty. Like many downtowns across the nation, Missoula’s was a wheezing district near death.

Today’s scene couldn’t be more different. Missoula flaunts the riverfront as its centerpiece, and downtown courses with at least as much life as the river itself. Buchanan, executive director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency (MRA), and her staff close out the town’s first urban renewal district (URD) June 30 with more than 200 projects under their belts. Over the next year, several projects already underway in the downtown district—the Madison Street pedestrian bridge and the skatepark, for example—will finish up, joining previous MRA undertakings that include the riverfront trail system, the Caras Park Pavilion and improvements to the Orange Street bridge.

There’s much to look back on, but also building excitement about the possibilities for Missoula’s two other URDs.

State law provides for the creation of URDs when a section of town is “blighted”— vacant buildings, underused land and struggling economies. Once a URD is established, any growth in the area’s property tax revenue is set aside for reinvestment in the district over the course of the next 15 years. The base property tax in effect at the time of the URD’s implementation continues to contribute to services offered by the city, county and schools. And the creation of a URD doesn’t raise property taxes, contrary to what many people think.

The main difference, says Buchanan, is that “[the taxes] just get spent in their front yard instead of across town.”

The life of a URD can be extended if bonds are purchased toward a major project—which happened in the case of downtown’s Central Park garage.

URD-2 lies west of downtown, roughly between Broadway and Third Street and on both sides of Russell Street. Though the district hasn’t gotten as much attention as downtown, it’s been around for 14 years and hosts a handful of ongoing projects, mainly involving housing. Buchanan says one of the first tasks in coming months in URD-2 is to develop a project that will require bonds, allowing the district’s life to continue past next year.

At five years old, URD-3 is the baby of the bunch but it’s also the largest—it sits along the Brooks Street corridor from Mount Avenue to Reserve Street and contains some of the neighborhoods along the way, as well as Brooks Street businesses, Southgate Mall and industrial lands along the railroad.

Now that the downtown district has expired, the MRA staff can finally look beyond downtown.

“We’ve been so consumed with closing out the downtown district,” Buchanan says. It’s been a hefty task because of the sheer number and variety of projects the agency has undertaken. From parklands to bridges to public art to the basics of lighting and sidewalks, MRA has contributed to just about everything you see on your stroll downtown.

Turning to the other URDs means a major shift in both thinking and goals. Downtown districts, Buchanan says, are easier to plan and execute because the main goal is to bring a dying district back to life. “It’s got good bones, good buildings, good infrastructure—it just makes sense,” she says.

But other parts of town are more complex. URD-3, for example, is a mix of residential and small commercial, but there are also big and small industrial lands, some that are still alive and some long dead. URD-2 is much the same, though its sprawling size presents additional problems. Both districts are far less cohesive than downtown, and neither boasts the river or the historic buildings that made downtown’s rebirth easy to envision. Additionally, both districts generate far less than the $3 million the downtown district produced annually: URD-2 generates $500,000 and URD-3 pulls in $350,000 annually, although those numbers are expected to increase as projects gain momentum and contribute to the current tax revenues.

“It’s a much more complex deal,” Buchanan says of the two districts. “Where do you put the shoe horn in and start prying it open?”

MRA staff are working on the answers to that question.

Assistant Director Chris Behan says a good part of MRA’s task is to be in the right place at the right time.

“It’s a matter of being ready, in the sense of having an idea of what we want to see and being ready to help with the infrastructure,” he says. “The growth will come—it’s a matter of reguiding it to these areas.”

Already there are big ideas for both areas, as well as more modest ones. One of the grand ideas is a trolley in URD-3 running from Southgate Mall to downtown along a little-used railroad track through town, linking neighborhoods and shopping districts along the way. Buchanan would love to see the trolley turn into reality but, recognizing the complexity of such a project, can’t say much about how the specifics might play out. A smaller-scale project already underway is the MRA’s contribution of about $60,000 toward the ongoing makeover of Malfunction Junction, adding landscaping, colored concrete and other features that will “start to create an identity for that area,” Buchanan says. Two major areas in URD-2 to watch for improvements are the old Intermountain Lumber and Champion Mill sites, as well as along Russell Street, where development is expected to boom after an overhaul of that artery, expected to begin in 2007 or 2008.

Projects of all sorts will be considered and implemented in coming years, and MRA staff sound exhilarated to be embarking on new work in new parts of town. Turning away from the heart of the city, though, isn’t going to be easy. Behan, who’s watched downtown transform during his 17 years with the MRA, says even though so much has been done, there are still dreams left unrealized.

“It’s like with your kids—there’s still things you can help them with, advice you can give, but it’s time to let go,” Behan says with a smile.

jmcquillan@missoulanews.com

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