Citing the potential benefits of redeveloping a downtown parcel, the Missoula Planning Board on Tuesday placed its support behind a zoning change for the Missoulian property, moving a potential mixed-use project one step closer to reality.
On a unanimous vote and with one abstention, the board approved a request by Lee Enterprises to rezone its property to a higher commercial standard that better aligns with the Missoula Growth Policy and the Downtown Master Plan.
The parcel, located on the corner of Higgins Avenue and Fourth Street, has accommodated the Missoulian for years. The parcel was initially zoned specifically for the paper and its printing press.
But city planner Cassie Tipard said that the property’s antiquated zoning, as specific as it is, eliminates nearly every other use. It has prompted Lee Enterprises to request the change in zoning around the sale of the parcel.
“The current zoning doesn’t allow residential development, and the proposed rezone would allow high-density residential development, reflecting the parcel’s suitability to accept net capacity,” Tipard said.
Lee Enterprises listed the building for sale one year ago for the asking price of $8.5 million. The property went under contract with an anonymous buyer shortly after and the sale was expected to close last spring.
The buyer hasn’t been publicly disclosed and Lee Enterprises is listed only as the applicant requesting the rezone. Neither Lee Enterprises nor the buyer have publicly detailed the proposed redevelopment, other than what’s noted in documents to the Planning Board.
“What we’re envisioning here is a mixed-use development,” said project representative Jamie Erbacher with WGM Group. “We certainly anticipate the first floor will be commercial uses, and residential above that. It’s likely the site will be developed with a parking structure. We know the Hip Strip needs parking on site.”
Area zoning allows for building heights of 125 feet, though the city’s design excellence standards now requires a “step back” from four stories along the street to higher features set away from the street. In comparison, the Millennium Building is 128 feet and the Wilma is roughly 103 feet.
The application makes mention of the step back and names housing and commercial as one of the driving forces behind the rezone application.
“This site has a great potential to add to the vibrancy of the Hip Strip and create additional housing stock,” the application states. “The zoning has the ability to convert the Hip Strip from a stop to a destination by providing parking and additional commercial development. A residential development within a mixed-use building strengthens the retail component and identity of the Hip Strip as a neighborhood.”
Members of the planning board were largely supportive of the rezone, saying changes to the corner are needed. They also praised the project’s proposed blend of retail and housing, saying both would enhance the Hip Strip and goals of the Downtown Master Plan.
“I like this proposal,” said board member Vincent Caristo. “It’s nice to see the Missoulian building, not withstanding it once being a major employer in town – I think we can do a lot better in terms of a building. I think this rezoning really sets the stage for some good things on the property.”