No more Mercs: New city ordinance seeks to avoid demolition of historic buildings

The historic Missoula Mercantile building was dismantled to make way for a downtown Marriott. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Missoula can do a better job of preserving its historic buildings – or at least of working through the review process leading up to their demolition, should there be no way to save a structure.

That belief guided City Council members, the city’s historic preservation officer and a few private citizens who worked over the past 18 months to rewrite Missoula’s ordinance governing the demolition of local buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The CliffsNotes version: No one wants to be part of another debacle like that leading to demolition of the Missoula Mercantile in April 2017.

The answer came in the form of a new document that took the previous “unclear, messy and short” (one-page) demolition process and replaced it with a detailed, 13-page ordinance.

That document received unanimous approval this week from the Missoula City Council.

The run-up to the Merc’s demolition was “exceedingly painful, expensive and contentious,” said Ward 3 City Councilwoman Gwen Jones, who worked with historic preservation officer Emily Scherrer to write the ordinance.

Jones said they “took some of the lessons” of the Mercantile experience and used those – along with a great deal of information from other cities’ historic preservation/demolition ordinances – to write Missoula’s new rules.

“There is a lot of passion and emotion involved with historic buildings, which is great,” Jones said. “In the future, I hope we preserve and save all of our historic buildings. However, if it comes down to a demolition permit once again, I hope it is a much better process and there is better comprehension and understanding by the public.

“There will always be emotion, but I think we can do better.”

The new Residence Inn by Marriott at the corner of Higgins Avenue and Front Street in downtown Missoula will incorporate a number of historic features preserved from the Merc.

Missoula resident Brian Upton stayed involved in the ordinance-writing effort from start to finish, and endorsed the final product at this week’s City Council meeting.

But he’s disheartened by the continued loss of historic Missoula buildings.

“I along with probably a lot of you and many other people in the community were pretty shocked when we lost the Merc, and I was no less shocked that we are about to lose the Willard (School), which is a perfectly functional, beautiful building,” he said.

“I understand the city didn’t have and doesn’t have tools with respect to both of those situations,” Upton added.

But he said he’s “happy to see” the new ordinance and that the City Council “is hopefully going to move forward with being more protective of these resources, because they are the type of things that you can’t get back.”

New construction, Upton said, represents a significant loss “when you compare what we can build and do now with what we had in the past – and how long it lasts and the aesthetics.”

Missoula has 51 buildings listed on the National Register. None of the buildings’ owners submitted comments on the new ordinance, or attended a pair of open houses, Scherrer said. They’ll need to be more involved in the future, by virtue of the ordinance’s requirements.

The new, detailed ordinance and demolition permit process “is pretty important to me,” Upton said. “Most cities that we think of as destination cities, that are pretty high up on the list of quality of living, are those that preserve their history, preserve their historic buildings. And I think Missoula should do better.”

Ward 4 City Councilman John DiBari agreed.

“If we ever have to go down the path of using this ordinance, this will provide a much more clear, usable process,” he said. “After the Mercantile experience, it’s important to move forward in a positive way.”

The new Marriott has quickly emerged at the corner of Higgins Avenue and Front Street. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

When, after years of closure, the Missoula Mercantile building was purchased and planned for demolition, the city could do almost nothing to change the outcome, said Scherrer.

“This all began in the summer of 2016, when our existing ordinance was put to the test,” she said. “The lack of information it provided was problematic. It was unclear, messy and short.”

The result was months of protest, emotion, litigation, delay in beginning construction of a new Missoula Marriott on the Merc site and a widespread communal sadness over the loss of one of the city’s most enduring retail icons.

The amended Title 20 approved this week specifically addresses the demolition or removal of historic resources within the city of Missoula – individual listed properties on the National Register of Historic Places.

There’s a longer timeline (120 days) for consideration by the Historic Preservation Commission and City Council. There are more detailed requirements for assessing economic feasibility, more specific requirements for consultation with historic preservation officials and mitigation, and a clause that the final demolition and building permit will be granted only after a final building permit application as been submitted to the city.

Historic buildings cannot be demolished if the site is to be left bare; historic icons will not be replaced by parking lots.

“It’s a toolkit for the Historic Preservation Commission to use in reviewing requests for a demolition permit,” Scherrer said.

Jones drew attention to the new ordinance’s emphasis on early involvement by local citizens and government officials in trying to prevent a historic structure’s demolition.

“Our hope is that if the property is going to be listed (for sale), first of all, that it goes on the listing service of buildings on the National Historic Register. There are local listings and then a separate, national listing for real estate that is on the historic registry.”

That national list of available historic real estate is the key to finding a philanthropist or “someone who can make the building work,” said Jones. “The earlier that information gets out, the better chance we have of preserving a building.”

So she and others are working with Missoula real estate agents and building owners to educate them about the national listing service.

Should a building make its way through the process and its owner still seeks a demolition permit, the process will now be clearly defined – complete with flow charts.

The pharmacy portion of the old Missoula Mercantile is being preserved as part of the new downtown Marriott. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Here’s what the ordinance says of its intent:

“The demolition or relocation of properties individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places are considered significant actions, as historic sites and structures are community resources and contributing elements to the character of Missoula.

“The removal of historic resources alters the established character of the neighborhoods of which they are a part. An application to demolish or relocate an historic resource is held to a very high standard, requiring submittal of comprehensive and detailed application materials.”

The purpose of Missoula’s new historic demolition permit process, Scherrer said, is to “evaluate and ensure” that the building’s owner has “considered reasonable and economically feasible alternatives to demolition or relocation.”

To eventually receive an historic demolition/relocation permit, a building’s owner must demonstrate that:

  • Denying the application will cause unreasonable economic hardship to the viability of the property;
  • That the applicant has made a bona fide effort to find a reasonable alternative that would result in the preservation, renovation, or adaptive reuse of the historic resource and;
  • That conditions necessary to mitigate the effects of approved demolition/relocation are developed.

Should demolition occur, the new ordinance ensures “that redevelopment of the site occurs in a way that mitigates the loss and enhances the many elements that are unique to the fabric, theme and character of each neighborhood and area within Missoula, and is sensitive to the significance of the site.”