A new challenge

Post-Badenoch, redevoloping the MRA

| September 18, 2003

Missoula Redevelopment Agency (MRA) Director Geoff Badenoch sees the whole city laid out before him in black and white. He leans back from the conference room table, examining a wall-sized aerial photograph of Missoula.

“Want to see something?” he asks, getting up. “Wait here.”

In a moment Badenoch is back with another one of his 8’ by 6’ maps. This shot has been taken from the same aerial angle as the one on the wall, but 25 years earlier. Comparing it to the modern map, it’s easy to see what a difference a quarter century has made in Missoula’s downtown. The ’70s map shows huge holes: no Children’s Theater, no Central Park, no Caras Park.

Two weeks ago, Badenoch announced his January retirement, saying simply that he was ready to try something new. After working for the MRA since 1982, and serving as director since 1985, Badenoch walks away from a downtown his agency helped revitalize.

“Geoff has a tremendous amount of experience,” says Mayor Mike Kadas. “He knows his job, he knows the downtown and he knows all the personalities involved. So that makes him hard to replace.”

Smart-growth advocate Judy Smith hasn’t always seen eye to eye with Badenoch, but she says he was someone she could work well with. Badenoch and Smith collaborated on the Lenox building, and the project’s mix of housing and commercial space has been a huge success, says Smith.

Missoulians can’t walk a block without coming across a downtown project MRA has had a hand in over the last two decades: A Carousel for Missoula, St. Patrick Hospital, the Millennium Building, the Art Museum of Missoula and sooner or later, the Missoula Civic Stadium.

Another piece of the downtown puzzle, the Wilma Theatre, is yet to be cemented in place. The MRA has spent about $350,000 to bring the building up to code and install a sprinkler system, but the ultimate fate of the for-sale venue remains unknown, and it’s not likely to get any more help from the MRA.

While most projects have been controversy-free, Badenoch leaves the MRA shortly after working with the City Council to approve $2 million in matching funds for the stadium—an issue that has been debated on the Council floor and in letters to the editor pages for months. A minority of Council members—often led by Ward 2’s Jim McGrath—questioned how the MRA could justify kicking in $2 million toward the stadium and not find money for other projects, such as the renovation of the public pools. In the end, Badenoch, along with the mayor, the Missoula Downtown Association and citizen groups, convinced the Council that the MRA’s $2 million was money well spent.

As Badenoch’s career with the MRA ends, and with MRA’s downtown money set to sunset in 2005, the MRA and its as-yet-unnamed new director will turn from downtown to the next Urban Renewal District. Over the next decade, redevelopment eyes will focus on Brooks Street and the old railroad corridor as it moves away from the city center and toward the Bitterroot. The new district was created by City Council at the request of business owners who wanted the MRA to work “its magic” for them, says Badenoch.

While it took the Council a few months to settle on the next Urban Renewal District, Kadas says the focus on the Brooks Street area was a no-brainier for him.

“A huge chunk of that corridor is nearing or is at obsolescence,” he says. “My whole view is that it wasn’t done very well when it was done in the first place. Because it wasn’t done very well, it’s due for a change. From an economic point of view, it’s not cost effective to keep putting Band-Aids on it, so I see lots of potential.”

Badenoch sees potential, too, but believes redeveloping this district will be nothing like his experience downtown. The Brooks Street corridor comes with unique challenges that could give the next MRA director a few headaches.

“We found two really obvious problems,” he says, backing away from his wall map with the new district outlined in red. “All this is laid out on a traditional grid except for this crazy street [Brooks] and this crazy railroad.”

This creates a daunting geometry for both traffic and development, says Badenoch. The geometry also created Malfunction Junction, the city’s most notoriously unnavigable intersection. Kadas, however, likes the challenge.

“You look at those odd-shaped parcels, and they really create a lot of opportunity for buildings with a lot of character,” he says. “It’s important to try and weave that into the overall fabric of what’s going to happen out there. Having a grid is really a critical part of the overall thing, but having some odd shapes is good, too.”

One thing the two men agree on is that it would be great to be able to take a bulldozer to some of the older shopping centers and start anew. No one, it seems, has any love for what smart-growth champion Smith calls the “gray and asphalt fields.”

Smith says she’s hopeful for the new district, but wants to make sure that there’s an opportunity for more affordable housing—not just more commercial development. She also hopes that redevelopment can squelch the city’s expansion westward.

All three—Badenoch, Kadas, Smith—eventually arrive at the same theme while discussing the Brooks Street corridor: It’s the perfect place to push infill. All three agree that any chance to put housing in the area—even if it’s mixed with commercial development—is a great idea.

“When you look at these photos, and I look at them every day, I say ‘where is the next opportunity,’” says Badenoch. “Because every place that I find for someone to build on means that they’re not building out toward Frenchtown. And there is a real public benefit to that.”

The Brooks Street district looks like another opportunity to have the MRA director put his stamp on dozens of developments, but that doesn’t entice Badenoch to reconsider his retirement.

“This is really the beginning of a career,” he says of the Brooks project. “I think that if I started on this, I wouldn’t quit until I was 80.”

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