Mary Avenue residents accept improvements, prepare for growth

Little more than a year ago, the city’s plans to extend Mary Avenue as an east-west connector linking Reserve and Brooks Street emerged as a hot-button issue for residents living along the former dead-end lane. Most residents have come to accept the changes. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

On a midday Monday morning, Jeremiah Ishman and Tyler Mullins laced up their running shoes and headed down the fresh sidewalks lining Mary Avenue.

From their home on the recently opened through-street, it’s roughly one-half mile to the pedestrian bridge spanning South Reserve. Both the bridge and the street – along with its roundabouts – have punctuated some of the changes taking place in their part of Missoula.

“I like roundabouts more than stop signs,” said Mullins. “I feel like a roundabout gets people paying a little more attention. I think it’s a good addition to have them, for sure.”

Little more than a year ago, the city’s plans to extend Mary Avenue as an east-west connector linking Reserve and Brooks Street emerged as a hot-button issue for residents living along the former dead-end lane.

While the connector had been identified in the city’s long-range transportation plan as early as 1996, it wasn’t until 2016 that work began on the street’s eastern half as part of Southgate Mall’s renovation and expansion.

To help pay for it, the city authorized the sale of $7.1 million in bonds before expediting the outreach and design of the street’s western half. Completed at $1.6 million, it now carries traffic through a four-block stretch of homes that once sat on the dead-end street.

“We moved in just after it was finished, and our tenant warned us that it would probably increase traffic,” said Ishman. “I don’t particularly think it’s that bad. I back out of my driveway every day and even in the mornings on the way to work at 7 a.m., I can usually back out across the two lanes and go without having to stop and wait for traffic.”

Two years after earthwork began, the Midtown renovations have come a long way toward reshaping this part of Missoula. The new AMC dine-in theater opened last week, and now sits within view of the homes lining the western reaches of Mary Avenue.

A grocery store is also expected to open nearby, and both amenities are now accessible by sidewalk – something lacking before the improvements took place.

But the work has also set the stage for future growth and inevitable infill as both property owners and the city look to make better use of land around the mall and its sweeping expanse of blacktop and vacant fields.

Not all Mary Avenue residents are ready to embrace the changes.

“We’ve got a lot more traffic,” said Steve Anderson. “You’re hearing traffic at 10 or 11 at night going by, the loud pickups and stuff. They slow down for the roundabout, but then they speed up. It was quieter before.”

Anderson, who has lived in his Mary Avenue home for 30 years, has watched the city grow up around him, and other changes are likely coming.

Among them, Peter Lambros plans to construct condominiums behind Bob Ward, which sits nearby. The housing plan was first presented nearly four years ago, but with the infrastructure now in place and the mall sold to an Ohio investment group, Anderson expects work to begin soon.

“My understanding is that Lambros sold the mall and he’s going to build a bunch of apartments over here,” Anderson said, pointing across the railroad tracks. “That’s going to add more traffic. While the access is a little handier to get to Brooks, eventually, I think they’re going to have to put a light at Reserve. If you catch it at a busy time, you can’t turn left.”