Developers question commission’s objectivity in looming Mercantile hearing

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By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

Questions regarding the Missoula Historic Preservation Commission’s ability to fairly consider a demolition permit submitted by a Montana developer for the Mercantile continued to linger this week.

In an email obtained by the Missoula Current, the commission’s chairman, Steve Adler, is named as the architect working with a potential rival developer looking to repurpose the vacant Mercantile and place condominiums on the building’s second floor.

Several other members of the commission have been actively pushing a petition to preserve the vacant downtown building on the “Save the Merc” Facebook page. The same page issued a call to action Tuesday urging opponents of a proposed $30 million hotel project to rally at next week’s public hearing before the commission.

HomeBase, the firm looking to build the hotel using historic elements salvaged from the Mercantile, questions whether it can get a fair hearing before the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.

“There appears to be some irregularities,” said said Andy Holloran of HomeBase. “But we have to believe in the system.”

In an April 2 email, Ian Lange said he, Steve Adler and “other interested folks” have been meeting to discuss saving the mercantile and repurposing it for condominiums. Adler, of Adler Architects Inc., is a member of the Missoula Historic Preservation Commission.

“What Steve and I have in mind are condos of various sizes on the second floor with a business, like the Good Food Store, and/or offices on the first floor,” Lange wrote. “If you know of folks who might be interested in this project (either as business owners, condo buyers, or interested only in helping save the Merc), please ask them to e-mail me for more details…”

When asked about the email, Adler said members of the commission have been advised by the City Attorney’s Office not to discuss the HomeBase petition outside of a noted public hearing. However, he admitted to working with Lange on a potential design for condominiums at the Mercantile, adding that he didn’t consider it a competing project or a conflict of interest.

He said members of the commission are charged with finding alternative uses for the building.

“I’ve talked to (Lange) and have given information,” Adler said, stating the information he offered was already part of the public record. “I’ve made it very clear to (Lange) that I can’t talk about the existing proposal before us.”

Adler declined to comment further, though he did send a email Tuesday evening citing a legal opinion released by the city attorney in early march. The opinion states that the “burden is solely on the Historic Preservation Commission and Historic Preservation Officer to explore and attempt to identify good faith feasible alternatives to demolition.”

According to an attorney retained by HomeBase, three members of the commission have also repeatedly posted in support of “Save the Merc” on Facebook. Several commission members have also pushed a petition intended to pressure city officials to stop the HomeBase project.

“We will save it. We have to,” commission member Cheryl Cote posted on Facebook.

Holloran said HomeBase will continue to navigate the process. He plans to attend a public hearing before the Historic Preservation Commission next week.

“We have to believe the commission is going to consider any application with objectivity, fairness and finding of fact,” Holloran said. “I hope that’s the case.”

In public comment last month, commission member Solomon Martin introduced himself to the City Council as a “citizen advocate” looking to save the Mercantile. He has since been recused from voting on the pending HomeBase permit.