By Martin Kidston
A Montana developer received initial approval to proceed with the deconstruction of the Missoula Mercantile on Wednesday, though the project’s future is based on a number of contingencies, including a development agreement that must be approved by the City Council.
The Land Use and Planning Committee approved the permit on a 9-1 vote. In doing so, it left room to further negotiate the design of a new hotel proposed for the parcel, and what historic elements are incorporated into the building.
As written, the agreement also requires the developer, HomeBase, to leave the pharmacy portion of the Mercantile intact. HomeBase has agreed to do so, and it presented plans Wednesday detailing its latest vision for the project.
The preservation community is likely to litigate the outcome.
“We digested a lot of the discussion we had last week, in terms of additional compromise and ways to incorporate some of the existing (Mercantile) building,” said HomeBase representative Andy Holloran. “We want to save the entire (pharmacy) building. We anticipate losing four rooms as a result, but we think it’s a compromise.”
The committee has pushed HomeBase to preserve as much of the Mercantile as possible, particularly the facade that wraps the vacant building.
HomeBase was reluctant at first, but worked over the past week to find ways to incorporate a portion of the facade into its new design, that being the two-story pharmacy marking the Mercantile’s northern edge facing Higgins Avenue.
“We think we can save that portion of the building, and that’s our goal,” Holloran said.
Holloran said HomeBase took another look at the facade wrapping the entire building before reaching the same conclusion that led it to apply for a deconstruction permit in the first place.
The poor quality of brick, the odd heights resulting from multiple additions, and outdated structural support made it ineffective from a cost standpoint to take preservation efforts further, Holloran said.
“It’s not only an aesthetic issue, most importantly it’s a functional issue, and it’s a cost issue,” Holloran said. “Functionally, it doesn’t work in today’s leasing world.”
The HomeBase project is the first viable project to come forward in the six years the Mercantile has sat vacant. Most members of the committee were aware of that fact, and while several wanted HomeBase to take its efforts further, they settled on the compromise presented Wednesday.
“I would love to see more improvement on the design, frankly,” said Ward 3 council member Gwen Jones. “But I also feel like I’ve reached the edge of my comfort zone in how I can creatively look at the evidence, look at this ordinance, and do what is legally solid. We’ve done the best job we can to retain part of the Merc and create a good design that will add to our downtown.”
Under the series of motions passed Wednesday, the committee authorized the issuance of a Partial Historic Demolition Permit, one that’s contingent upon a signed agreement with HomeBase and approval by City Council.
The pharmacy must be excluded from the deconstruction process and the permit will be issued exclusively to HomeBase, or Mercantile LLC. The remainder of the Mercantile shall be deconstructed in a way that maximizes reuse of any historic materials salvaged from the property.
While Ward 1 council member Heidi West voted against the permit, Ward 5 council member Julie Armstrong questioned the preservation community and why it didn’t step forward sooner to maintain the structure.
The Mercantile has been neglected by a long line of tenants over a number of years, she said, and it was unfair to expect a private developer to foot the bill to serve the preservation community’s personal vision for the property.
“This building is a shadow of what it used to look like,” said Armstrong. “The old parts are fantastic, but nobody in this town cared enough to keep it up. I don’t know why at this point, after it’s been siting vacant, we leave it to the last person at the table and say they need to fix it in an all or nothing deal.”
The protracted debate has already place the HomeBase project months behind schedule. As it now stands, Holloran said, the firm will spend the next six months crafting its final design reflecting what it presented on Wednesday.
Deconstruction won’t likely begin until March of 2017, he said. The soonest a new hotel could open would be the fall of 2018.
Before deconstruction begins, however, HomeBase is expected to work with Development Services and the Missoula Redevelopment Agency to detail the project’s ultimate design and negotiate any deconstruction costs.
Ellen Buchanan, executive director of MRA, said the city could bond up to $3.5 million based on construction activity planned for the Front Street Urban Renewal District. The funding could help pay for deconstruction costs and preserving the pharmacy building.
Buchanan said it would be up to the City Council to consider whether it wanted to spend the bond on a single project or disperse it throughout the district to aid in other projects, such as the conversion of Front and Main street into two-way traffic.
“There are always projects in any of these districts with financial needs,” said Buchanan. “The conversion of Front and Main has been a goal of the city’s for decades. There’s a lot of constituents downtown that would like to see that happen. But there are other projects that will come along that would be catalyzed by the hotel and the student housing project.”
The student housing project is planned nearby on Front Street.
The committee agreed to allow HomeBase to proceed with deconstruction before submitting a list of historic materials it plans to incorporate in its project. It reached that decision after Alan McCormick, the firm’s attorney, said HomeBase would not know what the building contained if it couldn’t first deconstruct it.
Still, under the negotiated agreement, the city can withdraw the permit if the project substantially changes direction. Mike Haynes, director of Development Services, said the development agreement was a logical approach to a complicated situation.
“We’ll ultimately be reviewing the plans when they’re submitted,” said Haynes. “A developer agreement is a voluntary agreement. That’s typically how things are handled when local government wants a commitment from the developer and the developer willingly commits to what the government is asking for.”
Chere Jiusto, executive director of the Montana Preservation Alliance, said the outcome was disappointing. Her organization lobbied for a different outcome and presented its own vision for the property.
“They’ve already decided things they’re not willing to be flexible about,” Jiusto said, speaking to HomeBase. “There are many ways to structure this kind of agreement, and many ways to see a new hotel and have the Mercantile protected.”
Members of the council suggested the preservation community is likely to litigate Wednesday’s outcome. Holloran said the move wasn’t unexpected.
“As we look back over the last five months, we’ve been clear that we believe in the process,” Holloran said. “If they want to litigate and file a lawsuit, that’s their business. We have tried to compromise and collaborate, and we’ll continue to take that approach.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org