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Missoula looks to begin environmental cleanup ahead of mixed-income housing project

Missoula Bike Trail
Posted at 8:23 AM, Dec 05, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-05 10:23:38-05

MISSOULA — A year removed from the opening of a new park, the city of Missoula is now moving forward with plans to see what’s remaining of a Midtown property redeveloped into a mix of retail and housing to serve a variety of income levels.

But before that happens, it will have to get the parcel, formerly owned by Montana Rail Link, removed from the state’s Superfund list.

“That entire parcel of land is on the state Superfund list,” said Annette Marchessault with the Missoula Redevelopment Agency. “Most of it has been cleaned up, but it’s still on the list. It needs to be delisted before we can develop housing or anything else on it.”

The city purchased the 12-acre property from Montana Rail Link in 2016 for roughly $2 million, calling it a generous price for a prized Midtown parcel. The city spent the following two years testing and cleaning portions of the site before transforming 4 acres into a new city park.

The remaining seven acres sits at the property’s north end and has long been eyed for its potential to accommodate housing and retail development. But the collection of buildings standing on the property are known to contain asbestos, while the surface soils contain contamination from past railroad functions.

The city has hired the WGM Group to complete testing and present a work plan as the next phase of the project moves forward. The city will also apply for a competitive grant through the EPA to assist with cleanup.

“If we do get the grant, WGM is working on the testing and strategy to do whatever cleanup is necessary,” said Marchessault. “Once the documentation is in place, the city will work with Department of Environmental Quality to begin the delisting process.”

The city estimates total cleanup at around $393,000, including $158,000 to remove asbestos and $235,000 to remediate the soil. The property could be removed from the state’s Superfund list and ready for future development by 2021.

“The city’s plan is to do a mixed-use, mixed-income development,” said Marchessault. “Some of that will probably use federal funding. But you can’t use federal funding to build housing that’s on a Superfund site. Unless it’s taken off the list, you can’t use federal funding for that.”

Back in 2016, when MRA purchased the property, it envisioned both the park and that future development. At the time, MRA director Ellen Buchanan said, “We have an opportunity with all of these 12 acres to do something pretty special.”

The park filled a neighborhood need, as it didn’t include much open space until MRL Park opened last year. The work also included the completion of the Bitterroot Branch Trail, which ended at the property until last year.

With the park and trail now complete, the city is looking toward future opportunities to redevelop the remaining 7 acres. Marchessault said it wasn’t yet known whether the city would sell the property to a developer who held the right vision, or serve as a partner in the project.

“Whether the city sells it to a developer or engages a developer, we don’t have those details yet,” Marchessault said. “But the city really wants it to be an example of really good development that has this mixed-income, mixed-use, infill-type development. It’s right in the middle of the city and a good place to showcase that.”