The redevelopment of private property in downtown Missoula moved closer to reality on Wednesday when the majority of a City Council committee approved a small easement to the property along Kiwanis Park.

The developers, MC Real Estate Development LLC, need the easement to adhere to city building and fire codes, according to city staff. It will also allow more density on the downtown lot.

While the easement will have no material impact on Kiwanis Park, and while the project will provide more housing than what's currently on the site, the simple request turned controversial with two council members in opposition.

Daniel Carlino and Kristen Jordan said granting the easement would displace the property's current tenants when redevelopment begins. But those in favor of the easement said redevelopment of private property would displace the tenants regardless of whether the easement was granted.

According to the developer, five tenants currently live on the property in question.

“It was always our intention to develop this,” said Carol McCauley. “We've been clear of that with the tenants there. We've always done month-to-month leases for these and tend to attract people that are coming and going a little more.”

Caroline McCauley and husband Matt Sullivan, who make up MC Real Estate, purchased the property in 2018 with plans to redevelop the site. City staff said the recommended easement measures 855 square feet along one corner of Kiwanis Park and would have no impacts on the park itself.

The project will result in around 21 apartment units, representing an increase in available housing in the downtown district. But two council members opposed the project and attempted to delay granting the easement, but without success.

“While we can't control private property rights, we can control density, easements and things like that,” said Carlino. “The financial incentive wouldn't be there to gentrify these currently affordable homes if there was no easement granted that would allow for the density. To say we have to allow all development is not correct.”

Carlino cited a portion of the city's housing policy that recommends retaining existing affordable housing. The developer suggested the existing units aren't considered affordable and the condition of the current building is poor.

Council member Heidi West said the housing policy also makes note of housing quality and doesn't just focus on retaining dilapidated properties.

“There's also language in our policy around what the quality of housing should be,” West said. “I don't believe these homes are providing affordable housing for people in our community, and the owners of property when they acquired it in 2018 were completely transparent on what their plans for the property would be.”

Council member Mike Nugent said the city has no say in regulating private property rights. Even if the City Council withheld the easement, the property owners would be free to redevelop anyway.

“Anyone who is applying that council by voting yes or no on this easement will prevent the tenants from being displaced is being misleading. We have no ability to regulate what a landlord does with their private contracts,” Nugent said. “We need to be sure we're dealing with the facts of what we can actually control. The private owner of this private land can still tomorrow displace the tenants even without the easement.”

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