New downtown Billings plan asks people to ‘dream big’


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Katy Easton, CEO of the Downtown Billings Alliance, shows her heavily annotated copy of the new downtown strategic plan at a public meeting Tuesday morning.

A strategic plan for downtown Billings that focuses on more housing, cultural diversity, better traffic and pedestrian circulation and support for large-scale, multi-anchor development was unveiled Tuesday morning.

A summary of the “Dream Big, Downtown Billings” plan was presented to about 60 people in the Royal Johnson Community Room of the Billings Public Library.

Highlights of the plan include calls for reassessing the layout of one-way and and two-way streets, providing public wi-fi throughout the downtown, encouraging upper-floor housing in downtown buildings and working with other cities to bring passenger train service back to southern Montana.

Dustin Lester, with Thomas P. Miller & Associates, the Indianapolis-based consulting firm that worked with the Downtown Billings Alliance on the plan, said its overarching goal was laid out in an “opportunity statement” at the beginning of the document:

“The Billings region is poised for expansion and can maintain its authenticity, yet experience sustainable and productive growth by creating, expanding, and attracting diverse businesses, organizations, and residents from across the multi-state region.”

Assisted by Katy Easton, the new chief executive officer of the DBA, and Maisie Sulser, its interim development director, Lester led people on a quick tour of the 140-page plan, saying everything in it was attached to an action plan that “is real and can be accomplished.”

The same people are scheduled to present the plan to the Billings City Council at its work session Tuesday evening, after which the strategic plan is to be posted on the DBA website.

The plan, intended to overhaul and update the Downtown Billings Framework Plan completed in 1997, is heavily focused on encouraging more downtown housing and making changes to walking, biking and driving patterns to encourage safety and connectivity.

The section on housing calls for conducting an inventory of vacant or underused upper floors in the downtown, then using that to give priority to opportunities for creating new housing based on property owner willingness, strategic location, the impact of investment and number of units developed.

It also calls for working with the city on making Community Development Block Grants available for an “Upper Floor Rehab Program,” as well as identifying city code, fire or planning requirements that might affect upper-floor redevelopment.

Other suggestions include developing an annual “urban living tour” in downtown Billings and creating a downtown residents committee that would offer social, educational and volunteer opportunities for established and new residents, and to help create a sense of community and to develop “downtown living ambassadors.”

The section on “multi-modal streets and connectivity” calls for conducting a traffic and bike study aimed at creating an environment where pedestrians and bicyclists feel safe and are encouraged to spend time and money in the downtown.

One key to that is North 27th Street, which is both the spine of the downtown and a state highway. The plan recommends commissioning a study that addresses the “safety, functionality, and aesthetics” of the 27th Street corridor.

On the subject of making the downtown more attractive to pedestrians, the plan suggests repairing and replacing substandard sidewalks, putting in more public art, creative lighting and “parklets,” and adding more “cultural references and historic images and factoids” to pavement, street furniture and street standards.

The plan also calls for working with state and federal transportation departments to develop a plan for converting one-way streets to two-way, and then demonstrating and lobbying for the conversion. In answer to a question, Lester acknowledged that this would be one of the more difficult changes to bring about.

In regard to parking, the plan has several recommendations — creating a parking app that would direct drivers to available parking spots, launching an educational campaign to change the perception of downtown parking and moving downtown employee parking to the upper levels of parking garages, so shoppers and other visitors can use the lower levels.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Consultant Dustin Lester introduces the new “Dream Big, Downtown Billings” plan Tuesday morning.

Other recommendations in the transportation section call for making plans to accommodate autonomous vehicles, possibly establishing a downtown shuttle service and forming a Billings Empire Builder Bypass Committee aimed at restoring passenger train service to Billings and other towns in Montana and North Dakota.The Amtrak Empire Builder is the name of the passenger train that runs along the Hi-Line in Montana.

In the section of the plan addressing “inclusion of diverse cultures,” the overall goal is to make downtown Billings “a model of inclusion and celebration of the diverse cultures that make up the Billings community.”

It makes note of the “unflattering stereotypes and long-held prejudices” that tend to discourage Native Americans from seeking “opportunity, employment, and services” in the downtown. It won’t happen overnight, the plan says, but the downtown should take “deliberate and strategic steps to change the dialogue” to “start a path to a more robust economy, cohesive society, and better opportunities for all.”

To that end, the plan recommends working with the city and various organizations to increase diversity on boards, committees and tasks forces and to develop leadership roles “based on knowledge and skills to avoid tokenism.” Other suggestions include having weekly or monthly celebrations of various cultures and partnering with MSU Billings to expand its annual Indian powwow into the downtown.

A larger goal would be to create an American Indian Culture Center in the downtown, based on models in Baltimore, Minneapolis, Phoenix and other cities.

The plan also recommends aligning the downtown’s general goals with those proposed by the developers of what was originally the One Big Sky Center and is now a broader, $1.5 billion plan to transform the downtown by targeting development in two separate districts — a “civic lifestyle district,” anchored by an entertainment and conference center, and a “health and wellness district,” that would be anchored by the downtown hospitals.

The downtown plan says public and private partners and developers need to work together to come up with a plan to develop a district funding model, and to pool resources to commission professional services to design models and to conduct feasibility studies.

There will also be a need to engage state and local legislators for the authorization of new funding models, the plan says. The plan also calls for expanding the mixed-use “anchor strategy” into the South Side and to the Yellowstone River.

In what is a more in-house section of the new plan, there are numerous recommendations for strengthening the organizational structure and working on the sustainability of the DBA itself.

At the conclusion of the presentation, Easton and Sulser said this was only the beginning, and they asked people in the community to be part of putting the plan to work.

“We are presenting this to you so you can be part of the process,” Sulser said.

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