MISSOULA - Three years have passed since the Payne family donated an entire block in downtown Missoula to the city — a gift that surfaced during the construction of the new Missoula Public Library.
In recent months, the Missoula Economic Partnership (MEP) has been reaching out to potential developers to test their interest and ability in redeveloping the block into something new.
The process remains young but Julie Lacey, the economic development director for MEP, is encouraged by what they're seeing as far as interest.
The Payne block represents the site of the old library, which will eventually be removed and redeveloped in accordance with the Downtown Master Plan.
“We created some materials to put together a brief that has some information about the site and basics around the process,” said Lacey. “That should give enough information for someone to get some direction going if they have a design in mind.”
Lacey said MEP has gathered information about the site, such as infrastructure and utility service. It also has reached out to city officials regarding regulations on design review for any potential project.
They've also explored potential partnerships and incentives that could help address the need for parking and financing. Potential tenants has been a topic of discussion as well.
Lacey said the first effort to solicit interest netted 11 potential developers. Of those, MEP plans to pursue conversations with seven of them.
“We've talked to them, they've expressed interest and we've shared the information,” she said. “The next step, we're asking folks for details about their firm and past projects, specifically projects that are on the ground and done.”
While the Downtown Master Plan isn't written in stone, it does lay out a vision for the district's future.
A recent market analysis found that downtown was ripe for retail and restaurant space, market-rate housing, office, and lodging and hospitality.
It also suggested that downtown could expect to add between 300 and 700 residential units over the next decade to house around 1,000 new downtown residents.
“We've been really upfront about saying it needs to have housing and good design,” Lacey said of the Payne block. “Other aspects, whether it's an incorporation of ideas from the master plan or public benefit, those conversations can evolve based upon what the design looks like and what incentives might be available.”
The Downtown Master Plan cites the library block specifically, calling it “a huge asset for the city.” The design and use of the site should be “carefully considered,” the plan suggests.
A building ranging from four to six stories has been suggested in past conversations. The site is also large enough to accommodate more than one structure.
“Whatever happens with the site, any new building should contribute to the fabric of buildings around it, and not detract from them,” the plan reads. “The building should not be considered in isolation, but also how the streetscape can be enhanced as well.”
The plan also offers suggested uses including “funky” retail and restaurant spaces, general office, childcare and cafe.
It also suggests that a downtown grocery store might fit, along with structured parking, mixed-income housing or affordable housing.
But parking and income-restricted housing may be difficult to achieve in the downtown core given the cost of land, materials and labor, at least without a deep public subsidy or a sweet public-private partnership.
Such conversations are expected to play out over time.
“We're going to have requests for everything but the kitchen sink to go on that block,” said MRA Director Ellen Buchanan. “To have someone who gets the economics and feasibility aspects of it, rather than a bunch of public employees saying this or that, is going to be invaluable, because everybody wants everything there.”
Lacey said MEP hasn't issued a request for proposals (RFP) but rather, it has reached out in search of potential partners. It's been a good approach thus far, she said.
“This isn't an RFP – it's in lieu of an RFP process,” Lacey said. “They (developers) like the idea of being able to get some understanding about this site and work collaboratively with the city.”
Lacey said she expects that MEP will give MRA a list of recommended developers at the beginning of next year. MRA will review the applicants and their vision, and likely make a recommendation for City Council to consider.