Urban living: Historic downtown Billings lofts go condo

Condos are now for sale in the Oliver Building at Montana Avenue and North 27th Street in downtown Billings. (Ed Kemmick/Last Best News)

Seven units in one of the earliest downtown buildings to be converted to loft apartments are now on the market as condominiums.

The two-story loft apartments, averaging about 1,700 square feet each, are located in the Oliver Building at 2702 Montana Ave., at the corner of Montana and North 27th Street.

Jane McFadyen, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker The Broker, said the building’s owners have decided to sell the entire 37,500-square-foot building, which includes commercial space in the basement and on the main and second floors, and apartments on the third and fourth floors.

By coincidence, consultants working on a study of downtown housing needs and interest in downtown living gave a preliminary update on Wednesday to representatives of the two groups that commissioned the survey.

Greg Krueger, development director for the Downtown Billings Alliance, said the DBA and the Billings Industrial Revitalization District jointly paid $50,000 for the housing study, which is being conducted by Economic and Planning Systems of Denver.

The money came out of tax-increment financing districts administered by the two agencies. The BIRD represents property owners in the East Billings Urban Renewal District, which lies between MetraPark and the central downtown.

The full study should be released sometime in October, Krueger said, and all they heard Wednesday were some big-picture findings. The main take-away was that demand for downtown housing appears to be strong.

About 700 people who work in or near the downtown completed the surveys, Krueger said, and almost exactly half of them said they’d be interested in moving downtown now, in five years or 10 years. “Downtown” actually takes in the tax increment districts themselves and everything within about a mile of each, Krueger said.

And while most respondents said they were interested in renting, Krueger said, “a lot higher percentage than I would have thought were interested in buying.”

McFadyen, the agent marketing the Oliver condos, said she and her associates expected to see the highest interest from millennials wanting to move downtown. In fact, she said, most of the interest they’ve seen has come from empty-nesters.“These buyers seem to appreciate the lofts’ proximity to local services and entertainment, and they don’t seem too unhappy to lose their backyards,” she said in a press release.

On a tour of the building, McFadyen said some potential buyers have also been interested in the possibility of using a portion of the units for an Airbnb. Six of the seven lofts are two-bedroom units, she said, with all bedrooms on the upper floor. That means the larger bedroom in each unit has its own door off the hallway, so a buyer would simply have to lock the door between the bedroom and the rest of the unit and add a small kitchenette, for an instant Airbnb.

In addition to interior stairs in each unit, all floors are accessible by elevator. The lofts are going for $160 a square foot, McFadyen said, with the smallest one priced at $224,000. A premium will be charged for one of the units, she said, one with windows looking out over Montana and then all along the North 27th Street side.

The units have in-floor heat, air-conditioning, 13-foot-high ceilings and gated, uncovered parking behind the building.

The Oliver Building was converted to commercial and residential units starting in 2005, by High Plains Architects. The firm’s website has a good, if slightly outdated, description of the building.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building started life as the Oliver Chilled Plow Works. The plow works was among the largest farm implement dealers in the country and took its name from its founder, James Oliver, and his patented method of chilling, or hardening, plow points.

The upper floors originally contained apartments, and a National Register plaque on the building said that in 1920, tenants included “a dressmaker, janitor, stenographer, laborer, and ‘telephone girl.’”  Also notable is a stenciled sign on the northeast foundation of the building, which reads “Glacier-to-Gulf.” That sign denoted the building “as a landmark along a 1920s tourism ‘motorway’ from Galveston, Texas, to Glacier National Park.”

Krueger said the Downtown Billings Alliance wanted to do a housing study because the last one was completed in 2001. The DBA then learned that the East Billings district was already planning do its own housing study, so the DBA piggybacked on that.

After the study is done, Kreuger said, its results will become part of an updated strategic plan for the downtown, which the group hopes to present to the City Council late in the year or early in 2018.

One thing the survey found, Krueger said, is that people interested in living downtown want a good, general grocery store that stays open late. They also want parks, safe sidewalks and bike lanes.

“Billings is still focused on these big-lot, single-family homes,” Krueger said, but he hopes developers will see that there is a market for downtown living in high-density buildings and in smaller houses on smaller lots  — the sort of housing already available in the older neighborhoods ringing the downtown.

Meanwhile, he said, everything he hears from the owners of downtown apartments is that all units are full, and that when there is an opening, the owners don’t even have to advertise beyond putting a sign in the front window.

And here’s one more interesting fact about the Oliver Building: Harry Gotwals, the banker who led the years-long effort that resulted in the downtown’s first strategic plan, completed in 1997, briefly lived in the Oliver.

Krueger said Gotwals lived in the corner apartment overlooking the railroad tracks.

“He did that on purpose so he could hound me on the quiet zone,” Krueger said, only half-joking.

In 2009, after six years of work, a quiet zone finally was established in downtown Billings, preventing trains from sounding their horns as they pass through downtown, except in emergencies, when the warning devices aren’t working or when a switch engine is backing up.