Helena commission adopts "vision" for Cruse Avenue's future

Posted at 8:55 PM, Nov 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-23 22:55:58-05

Helena city leaders have given their approval to a plan for redeveloping an “underutilized” street at the edge of downtown.

The Helena City Commission voted unanimously Monday to adopt a “Downtown Renewal Vision” for Cruse Avenue. The plan lays out possible ways to better integrate the Cruse Avenue corridor with surrounding areas.

City leaders say Cruse was initially planned as part of a bypass between downtown Helena and Interstate 15. Because of that, it has a wider right-of-way than most streets, with several large gaps between north- and southbound lanes and few residences or businesses on the streetfront.

However, the bypass was never completed, and leaders say Cruse is now too large for the relatively low traffic it receives. They describe it as a barrier to nearby neighborhoods that doesn’t provide enough accessibility or support economic development.

“Cruse Avenue, as it exists today, does not further these use categories in a meaningful way and could be a hinderance in what could otherwise be a thriving neighborhood center,” a city report said.

City staff initially proposed several possible directions for Cruse Avenue’s future – including considering closing the street to traffic. After public meetings earlier in the year, they recommended maintaining vehicle access, but narrowing the right-of-way and using the adjacent land for things like affordable housing developments and multi-use pathways.

When the city released its initial three conceptual designs for Cruse ahead of the public meetings, all of them called for redeveloping the site of the Neighborhood Center – a building off Cruse that houses many of Rocky Mountain Development Council’s programs, including the senior center, Head Start, preschool and Meals on Wheels. In the vision plan the commission adopted Monday, the Neighborhood Center would remain in place for now, but it would leave open the option in the future of building a new center on the existing facility’s parking lot and redeveloping the current site.

Lori Ladas, Rocky’s executive director, told MTN the city owns the Neighborhood Center, but Rocky has leased space there for years. She said the current building is aging and they would like to look at the possibility of a new facility, but that it would likely be a long-term goal because of the need for financing.

The vision plan notes that any replacement of the Neighborhood Center would be dependent on future funding from the city or other sources.

Ladas said she has some concerns about the impact of the proposed changes to Cruse – particularly that it might reduce available parking for the Neighborhood Center. However, she said the vision could be a positive for the area overall.

“I think it’s a really cool idea to bring more housing into the downtown area,” she said. “That end of town is beautiful, and it’s very close to trails and restaurants. I would definitely think that that would be a nice thing to see happen there.”

Also at Monday’s meeting, the commission gave initial approval to creating an urban renewal district around the former Capital Hill Mall site. The district would allow the city to redirect some future property tax revenue from the area into redevelopment there. There will be a public hearing on the proposal at the commission’s Dec. 7 meeting.