Downtown redevelopment prompts upgrade to obsolete power grid

Crews began deconstructing the old Uptown Diner in downtown Missoula on Friday. An effort to update the dated power grid will bring modern service to five properties on the block, located on the eastern corner of Higgins Avenue and Main Street. (Photo courtesy of David Bell)

As crews began deconstructing the former Uptown Diner in downtown Missoula on Friday to make way for a contemporary art gallery, a coalition of neighboring property owners prepared to replace the block’s obsolete power grid with a modern system.

Three of the four property owners have signed on for the project, though one, a Texas company that owns at least two buildings, has yet to commit to their cost of the upgrade.

“It’s a century-old power grid that’s still active in Missoula, primarily east of Higgins and south of Broadway,” said Chris Behan, assistant director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency. “It’s adequate for current uses, but any kind of new use or expansion of the buildings will need a better power system.”

All five of the properties that would be served by the new system have come under new ownership in the last 18 months. Two of them are currently being redeveloped.

That includes renovations by Nick Caras to the historic Radio Central Building, and plans by Karen and Brian Sippy to build a two-story art gallery in place of the shuttered Uptown Diner. Deconstruction for that project began Friday.

The Marriott Hotel, which sits across the alley, has already run modern power to its property. That project remains under development and remains on pace for a December opening.

“Some wires were placed underground as part of the hotel project, but the alley still contains old utility poles, drooping wires and the remains of several other power supply changes over the past century,” Behan said.

MRA this week approved an amount not to exceed $40,000 to aid in the power upgrade, which would see NorthWestern Energy replace the tangled nest of obsolete wires and equipment with a modern system.

The individual property owners would be responsible for installing underground service lines from their building to the new feed. All but one property owner has agreed to do so.

“I think we’ll all upgrade to make it a more useable alley,” Caras said. “We’re going to be running new electrical to our building, too, but we don’t have a fixed date yet.”

The properties are located in the Front Street Urban Renewal District, which has roughly $240,000 in uncommitted funds available for future projects.

But MRA has been asked to make a one-time remittance from various districts to cover the revenue shortfall in various local governments as a result of this year’s drop in certified taxable values.

That has board members concerned that drawing down $40,000 for the power upgrade would leave the district unable to partner on future projects.

The former Firestone building, which also sits on the block and is now owned by Andy Holloran, is likely to be redeveloped once the construction on the Marriott is finished.

“Last time I talked to him, he wasn’t sure what he would be doing,” said MRA Director Ellen Buchanan. “It’ll be multi-story and maybe mixed use. It may have some residential. That’s what I’ve been encouraging him to do, build some ground floor retail and build residential above. He’s done that pretty successfully in Bozeman, so the model is there.”