Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) The role a proposed housing development at Fort Missoula would play in generating revenue to restore the Old Post Hospital played a central role in Thursday's hearing over whether the Historic Preservation Commission acted in good faith when it denied the project a permit.

Like other aspects of the hearing, both sides offered different views of whether “financial feasibility” should be considered in approving or denying a permit. In other words, what role does a proposed housing development at Fort Missoula play in generating the funding needed to restore the decaying hospital.

The city's historic preservation officer Elizabeth Johnson said financial feasibility wasn't foremost in the decision to deny the project.

“We do include that, but it's not a specific standard that staff has addressed directly in any staff report for a historic preservation permit,” said Johnson. “It's just something to keep in mind while reviewing a project under the Secretary of Interior standards.”

Tres Birds owns property within the Fort Missoula Historic District along with the adjoining hospital, which was built in 1911 and played a role during the fort's history as a Word War II internment camp.

The developer has proposed placing 16 townhomes on private property next to the hospital and using the revenue to restore the hospital.

But the Historic Preservation Commission denied Tres Birds a permit for the project and the City Council on Thursday upheld that decision. Without the project, supporters of the development contend there is no money to save the hospital.

However, Johnson disagreed, saying a number of grants could at least help reduce the cost of restoration, which has been estimated at more than $7 million.

“The (developer) was not willing to pursue grants because the grants didn't cover the full cost of the project,” Johnson argued. “In my almost 10 years working in the world of historic preservation, I have yet to come across a project that meets all its financial obligations through grants alone.”

Backers of the project have suggested that the commission's denial of the permit represents a taking of private property by reducing its value by limiting its potential uses.

David Gray, an architect who has worked on other historic buildings, said financial feasibility matters greatly. Without funding provided by the housing development, there is no money for restoration.

“If you can't afford to remodel the building because it's so expensive, then you can't save the building,” said Gray. “Just because grants exist out there doesn't mean they're attainable. They've very hard to get.”

Others sided with the developer on the issue, including state Sen. Ellie Boldman. While some grants may exist and could be secured to help restore the hospital, alone they'll fall short of the true cost.

Without another stream of revenue to complete the work, restoration won't be possible, she said.

“The condition of the hospital right now is just too far gone, too decayed to be salvaged by public grants alone. There won't be enough public funding,” said Boldman. “I have zero doubt that if we want to work together as a community to save that hospital, the economic feasibility really means a multi-use development in some small way. It's clear we're running out of time.”

Several members of the Missoula City Council also questioned the end goal if nothing can be brought to the property to fund restoration. That includes members who upheld the Historic Preservation Commission's denial of the permit.

“I walked through that hospital yesterday and I have to wonder, what's the end goal?” said council member Mike Nugent. “That's going to be a massive effort and at some point, whether it's this project or another project, someone is going to have to organize and do something about it, or it's going to become functionally obsolete.”

Council member Mirtha Becerra offered similar thoughts around historic preservation. She too voted to uphold the commission's decision to deny the permit.

“It contributes to the fabric and the character of the places that we love,” she said of history. “(Preservation) doesn't happen by accident. It happens because someone, an entity, preserves them and puts the time, interest and money into making that preservation possible.”