A 500-acre area between downtown and MetraPark could someday be home to thriving, environmentally friendly industries, new office buildings, a cluster of new homes close to downtown, new motels and retail development.
Bicycle and pedestrian paths winding through the area would connect with the city's trail system.
And what happens to the heavy industries that have operated in the East Billings Urban Renewal District for decades? Chances are that they'll stay right where they are.
Those were some of the concepts presented at public meetings Wednesday and Thursday as consultants continue to develop a master plan for the area.
EDAW Inc. of Seattle was hired last year to complete the master plan. The district is bordered on the west by North 22nd Street and extends to just west of MetraPark. Its north and south borders are Sixth Avenue North and Montana and Minnesota avenues.
Eighty people, many of them property owners, attended Wednesday's meeting, where the consultants presented initial plans. After receiving public comment, the consultants refined the details and presented them again Thursday. About 50 people attended that meeting.
Efforts to revitalize the district got started about four years ago as property owners got together to look at ways to revitalize the area between downtown and MetraPark. After an initial study was done, the City Council created a tax increment financing district. The redevelopment tool allows some tax revenues collected within the district to be used for such infrastructure as streets, sidewalks and water and sewer projects for a specified period. The same strategy has been used for years to revitalize downtown Billings and for the area near Interstate 90 where the Cabela's sporting-goods store is being built.
Because the area is so large, the consultants identified zones that have distinct characteristics and could have different uses as the area is developed.
The western edge of the district was identified as likely to harbor infill development similar to what's going on downtown. This area could include developments such as the new First Interstate operations center, which is under construction near North Park. A proposed federal office building is also a potential development for this area, planners said.
The area near Montana Avenue was identified for "adoptive reuse," building on the extensive development that has already taken place.
The eastern part of the district was identified for the hospitality industry, a home for motels and retail businesses that tie into MetraPark.
A central portion of the district was identified for possible residential development. Just to the east, the district could harbor businesses dedicated to green energy, and the largely industrial area toward the east would likely remain as it is.
The planners took a close look at streets that serve the area. One concept likely to move forward is the idea of "complete streets," which would accommodate bicycles and pedestrians in addition to automobile traffic. The planners also presented an idea to develop Second Avenue as a Main Street-style thoroughfare extending from downtown to MetraPark.
After quite a bit of discussion, the planners also recommended that Fourth and Sixth avenues north remain one-way streets, although other streets may be well-suited as two-way streets.
In response to comments and questions from the audience, Brian Scott, director of urban design for EDAW, said the concepts presented this week are preliminary. They're subject to change, and development could take years to complete, he said.
Rick Leuthold of Sanderson Stewart Engineering, the company formerly known as Engineering Inc., outlined the infrastructure needs for the area. Storm sewers are mostly inadequate, especially in the eastern portion of the district. He presented preliminary concepts for better handling storm water with the district.
Business owners were mostly supportive of the planning process.
Jim Markel, co-owner of Red Oxx Manufacturing, which makes high-end soft luggage, sees a lot of potential for the area.
"I've been in here since 1993, and I'm excited about the idea of creating green businesses," Markel said in an interview before Thursday's meeting. "We have tremendous potential for transportation and communications in this area."
Jim Gallup, a property owner within the district, said the planning concepts appeared to be sound, but there still are a lot of unanswered questions on how and when the district will be developed. Above all, the plan must be flexible, he said.
Parts of the district have never been annexed. Property owner Dave Doll said one of the first priorities will be to see whether the county-owned parcels will be willing to annex. He said the district needs more property owners to participate.
Randy Hafer, a Billings architect who chairs the city's parking advisory committee, said Wednesday that parking is always a challenge. He urged the group exempt property owners from city regulations that require them to provide off-street parking. The downtown is already exempt from city parking restrictions, he said. Hafer also urged the designers to incorporate creative solutions such as diagonal parking to solve parking problems.