Council approves car wash despite neighborhood opposition

Ben Martin received approval to raze the Howard Johnson Inn on Brooks Street and replace it with a large Metro Express Car Wash like the one pictured above.

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

The Missoula City Council on Monday night approved a car wash for a large city lot currently occupied by a fading motel, countering the efforts of neighborhood groups working to guide the district toward a different and more diverse future.

In the vote, Eagle, Idaho, developer Ben Martin received approval to raze the Howard Johnson Inn on Brooks Street and replace it with a large Metro Express Car Wash. While he billed the project as a family owned jobs creator, the business runs counter to community plans for the Midtown district.

The project is planned at 3530 Brooks Street and was approved on a 9-2 vote.

“I cannot support this proposal, not because it’s a car wash,” said Ward 4 council member John DiBari. “I don’t feel that given the way our rules are set up and the intention we’ve had for a long time on Brooks Street that this is the right location.”

Over the past few years, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency has invested millions of dollars to diversify the Brooks corridor and move it away from its dependence on the automobile.

That effort has included multiple plans, consultants and community workshops. While the process has been slow and taken years to manifest, the effort is showing results and several projects that adhere to the vision are moving forward.

They include mixed-use retail, entertainment and future housing built around neighborhood hubs. A single-use project such as a car wash infringes on that plan and does little to realize the community’s vision for the district, opponents said.

MRA, Missoula Federal Credit Union, the Southgate Neighborhood Council, Atonement Lutheran Church and the Missoula Midtown Association all opposed the project.

“Great effort has been made by Midtown stakeholders to redefine the nature of the Brooks corridor,” the association wrote in a public statement. “This single-use, industrial facility as proposed does not support that vision.”

But the area is currently zoned as “regional commercial and services,” giving the council few ways to deny the project. The designation permits uses such as a car wash, though it requires approval as a conditional use and is not a guaranteed use.

The project includes three stacking lanes on 34th Street, which feeds a church and a neighborhood, and as many as 25 vacuum stations. Despite neighborhood opposition, the council’s two Ward 5 representatives supported the plan, as did most other council members.

“I am excited to bring a good employer to town who will pay good wages and benefits,” said Ward 5 council member Julie Armstrong. “I think that’s our job on council. I’m excited about this project.”

Martin described his firm as a family owned business which runs similar car washes in Idaho and Colorado. The project is valued at roughly $8.5 million and would, Martin said, provide roughly 12 jobs with a starting wage of $13 to $14 an hour.

Last week, Martin suggested the starting pay was $12.50 an hour. He said the payroll would be around $500,000 to $700,000 annually. He’s spent $77,000 for design, engineering and appraisal work, he said, and looks to close on the property in early February.

“I see other single-use facilities going in a few blocks away,” said Martin. “I think the objection is the fact that we’re building a car wash, and some folks don’t want to see a car wash, even though it’s a permitted use. We’ve done everything the city has asked us to do.”

Martin said his family has been building and running car washes for nearly 50 years. Metro Express has had its eyes on Missoula for several years and only recently found a suitable piece of property, Martin said.

“We like the community and our son would like to live here,” said Martin. “We think Missoula would benefit by Metro Express becoming part of the community.”

Ward 3 council member Gwen Jones and other council members suggested they would review the corridor’s zoning to better match the community’s vision for the district.

“I understand this may not be the vision for this community and other neighborhood growth plans we’re working on,” said  Jones. “It’s up to us to do the rezoning to effectuate those. If we want to change the rules, that’s fine, but we need to do it that way.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com