By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
Several members of the public urged the Missoula Historic Preservation Commission to deny a deconstruction permit for the Mercantile on Thursday and force city leaders to make the ultimate decision.
The commission didn’t go that far just yet at its scheduled meeting, though it voted again to postpone any decision for another month. While a decision was expected, members of the commission, including several who missed the last meeting, said they needed more time to review material.
“There are things I still wonder about and I’d like more information on,” said commission member Delia Hagen, who was absent from last week’s meeting. “We’re under contractual obligations to the State Historic Preservation Office. To ensure we’re upholding all the laws that we’re obliged to uphold, I’d like to see that contract.”
Hagen would later make a motion to postpone a decision until next month. She found support in commission member Joshua Pollarine. The motion passed 4-2 with Steve Adler and Solomon Martin abstaining. Three other commission members were absent.
The meeting took a confrontation and chaotic tone from the start when commission member Scott Loken called city employees “keepers” and challenged developers to reveal the asking price for the vacant property.
Loken admitted to being out of the state for several weeks and missing several meetings.
“Point is, I come back and all this stuff is coming down hard and heavy on this commission,” Loken said. “We’re being asked by corporate American to tear down one of our touchstone buildings.”
The information Loken sought, including financial information and past engineering studies, had been discussed at length at passed meetings and was already a matter of public record.
Mike Haynes, director of the Development Services, urged the commission to stay on task.
“The fact the commission member missed the last six or seven meetings, we cant start the conversation over again and ask the same questions,” Haynes said. “There’s no point in going over the information that has already been discussed at great length over a number of meetings.”
Members of the public brought up many of the same arguments made over the past two months, during which time the commission was expected to explore findings of fact to support its impending decision.
The permit, submitted by Mercantile property owner Octagon Capital Partners, seeks to deconstruct the empty building to make way for a new $30 million downtown hotel proposed by HomeBase.
While past meetings have seen opposition to the concept, several community groups, including the Missoula Chamber of Commerce, the Missoula Downtown Association and the Business Improvement District have all come out in support of the project.
Missoula resident Bjorn Johnson also voiced support for the project on Thursday, saying Missoula should welcome the redevelopment of a property that has sat vacant for six years. While the debate includes many talkers with no financial standing, he said, the developers are willing to put money on the table.
“These are men of action who want to bring some economy to this town,” Johnson said. “We can say it’s our building, but you’re not paying a bank loan on it, or paying the taxes on it. If you think there’s an option for restoring the building and creating new business in it, why haven’t you done it? Why haven’t you gone to the bank, taken a loan and put a business in it? I think they have a great plan.”
Others suggested it was unfair to ask a historic preservation commission to consider a permit to remove an historic building.
“You’re an advocacy group,” said Carl Davis. “This is the epitome of historic preservation at its worse. We can’t expect you to say anything but adamantly no.”
Commission member Steve Adler reminded his peers – as well as members of the public – of the commission’s ultimate responsibility.
“When we make a decision, we’re required to come up with findings of fact,” he said. “That’s part of what makes our job difficult, when we get conflicting testimony. Wherein does the truth lie? That’s not always easy.”
The commission is expected to revisit the issue for a third time next month. If it takes no action, the permit will be automatically approved on June 7. If it denies the demolition permit, HomeBase can appeal the decision to the City Council.
However, developers have repeatedly said that interest rates and the market could change, and time is the essence.