MISSOULA — All eyes have been on Missoula's Hip Strip lately as a new development has not only raised eyebrows but has drawn thousands of signatures in opposition.
It's an area not only beloved to residents, but one city leaders have long been looking to reshape. The Missoula Downtown Master Plan maps out several potential strategies for the Hip Strip while keeping intact local favorites.
The historic buildings home to cherished establishments like Bernice's Bakery will remain along South Third Street but one idea imagines that street as a one-way on the first block.
New mixed-use buildings with residential above and retail and cafes below are envisioned for both sides of Higgins between Fourth and Fifth streets
Then we come to the former Missoulian building, which the Downtown Master Plan sees as a tower for riverfront dining and residential units. It's not far from the development recently unveiled but it's an area that had to be rezoned in order for these ideas to become reality.
“We just want to see and hear what you guys are doing, so that this doesn't happen again,” one person said during a recent public comment session of the Missoula City Council.
“I certainly hear the upset and appreciate the folks who have reached out,” Missoula Mayor John Engen said.
“My God, what are you allowing to happen in our city? This is, this is wrong. It is absolutely wrong,” was what another person said during the public comment session.
Frustration spreads like a wildfire in the wind when it comes to development -- especially when that development plans to replace a piece of Missoula’s riverfront.
By now, you’ve probably heard the news of the local newspaper’s former home. Developers have purchased the site of the old Missoulian building, and their plans call for a $100 million project. Think condos and commercial space reaching as tall as 125 feet.
While these plans have been drawn by out-of-state developers, it’s the Missoula City Council that’s received much of the backlash.
"There was an impression out there in the community that city council and city administration somehow had the power to vote yes or no on this development and also somehow vote yes or no on this developer,” Councilwoman Gwen JJones told MTN News.
Jones – who represents Ward 3 -- heard the cry of the community loud and clear as 40 to 50 calls and emails came through last week. And one by one, she set the record straight.
“This is a private property development so anyone can come in and buy it. It can be sold or bought, it doesn't need our stamp of approval. And if someone wants to build on it, tear something down and build again we do not decide who does that, because we are not part of the equation since we do not own the property. We're not putting any public money into it through MRA or any other programs. - Councilwoman Gwen Jones
While the Missoula City Council didn't have a hand in the sale of the Missoulian site, they did play a role in the zoning when they approved a request on Oct. 4 to rezone the parcel from industrial to neighborhood commercial.
Jones said the decision to rezone the property wasn’t a casual one, but rather, a thoughtful one based largely on the city’s growth policy and zoning of nearby properties.
“What's logical is to match the rest of the zoning on the Hip Strip, and that it's reflective also of the downtown,” Jones said. “So, it's a major commercial corridor, and that's, that's the zoning that we put in.
The Missoula City Council can’t do much at this point for the more than 7,000 people who have signed a petition opposing this development. It’s a tough pill to swallow and Jones can see why.
“I think when it goes from being hypothetical in a growth policy to than an actual drawing in front of someone and it's very concrete -- from the abstract to the concrete -- that is still a lot for people to digest.
As Missoula grows and future developers come to the city with ideas for luxury condos or commercial spaces, Jones recommends reading up on the city’s growth policy and following the city council’s agendas to ensure your voice can be heard.