Mill Site Plan Wins Approval

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After years of work and hours of public comment, the Missoula City Council unanimously approved a development plan for the Champion mill site.

On Tuesday morning, participants were exhausted but celebratory over the decision late Monday night. Every council member was present, and even those who haven’t been fans of infill and density voted in favor of zoning and subdivision for the 46-acre site on the south bank of the Clark Fork River between Hickory and California streets.

“It does feel great,” said WGM Group’s Nick Kaufman, the firm’s lead planner for the project. “There’s always some uncertainty when you enter a public review process. And I think what you saw here was great statesmanship on the part of the City Council.”

The project was large enough that it could have split the council, but instead, various project leaders somehow managed to bring the group together. Several council members offered perspectives Tuesday on why the body was able to come together to help develop what some say is the last large, developable parcel in the core of the Garden City.

“I think it was probably about the site and the project,” said Council President Ed Childers of Ward 6.

He said people liked a combination of things, such as the park. They also liked the idea that someone was actually sorting through the legal and on-the-ground complications at the site.

“The ownership was tangled,” Childers said. “These folks came along and managed to untangle that. It’s not finished, but it’s close now.”

The industrial site needed attention, “and they gave it that.”

Council members from Ward 3 paid close attention to the project since it’s in their neighborhood.

“It’s not every day that a 520-lot subdivision comes into your backyard,” said Ward 3 Councilwoman Stacy Rye.

Those steering the process did good work, said Councilman Bob Jaffe of Ward 3, and that helped move it ahead.

“You know, sometimes we do things and it feels like the process is all confused and we don’t have all the information, and we’re fumbling with how to go forward. This one didn’t go that way. It was very well organized. So much work went into hammering everything out in advance,” Jaffe said.

He said WGM Group, the Office of Planning and Grants and the Missoula Redevelopment Agency played strong roles in that respect.

He doesn’t see the outcome as perfect, though. The mill site was touted as a model of urban development in Missoula, and Jaffe said its lack of an affordable housing component was the only real disappointment.

“It’s just this glaring piece that’s missing from that picture,” Jaffe said. “If you’re going to build the ideal project, it should be inclusive.”

At the same time, however, he said there’s still plenty of opportunity to create incentives for builders and developers to build affordable units.

Rye said the city has a lot of money tied up in the project, so council members were vested in a great outcome. She particularly praised the decision to have retail on the ground floors. Planners said that setup creates life on the streets, and they showed pictures of outdoor bistros and sidewalk cafés.

“I’m very, very happy about that,” Rye said.

One aspect of the project that drew complaints Monday night, but that was included in the council’s approval, was a maximum building height of 100 feet near Ogren-Allegiance Park. Developers want to build a 10-story building there.

Councilman Jon Wilkins has fought for traditional neighborhoods, but he too praised the plans for high density. He said he wasn’t against infill if it was in the right place – and he believes the riverfront area is appropriate.

“In this valley, we do have to have infill someplace,” said Wilkins, of Ward 4. “And I think toward the core of town is the best place to do it. It’ll keep downtown vibrant because people will be living there. It’ll hopefully keep them out of cars.”

WGM’s Kaufman said community members held planners accountable to show them how the area would be built out, what the impacts would be and how to mitigate them.

“I think this is a spectacular project for Missoula. I think it’s a wonderful infill project,” Kaufman said.