By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
Another member of the Historic Preservation Commission recused herself from voting on a demolition permit for the Mercantile on Thursday night following allegations that she and three other commission members have demonstrated bias.
The recusal and questions surrounding the commission’s objectivity kicked off a contentious meeting that saw terse exchanges and a wide range of conflicting presentations. Members of the development team had flown in from around the country expecting the commission to decide the matter, though it failed to do so at the end of the night.
The commission postponed the decision for another month.
“This hearing tonight has had nothing to do with our application,” said Andy Holloran of HomeBase, the firm looking to purchase the property and construct a $30 million hotel. “We have met the criteria as set forth in your ordinance. All we can do is abide by and go by the criteria given us, and we have.”
The evening saw conflicting opinions from the same engineering firm that’s now lobbying to save the building, and a woman who compared the team of Montana developers to Islamic State terrorists out to destroy world heritage sites.
Others questioned why the city was working to redevelop the Riverfront Triangle and Southgate Mall while sitting quietly on the sidelines regarding the Mercantile’s future.
“The Mercantile has represented the past since 1877,” said Robert Brown. “Nothing has done so longer, and nothing represents the soul of Missoula more than the Mercantile. Missoula has one history, don’t lose it.”
But not everyone agreed, including John Coffee, whose family owns the Hammond Arcade Building on the corner of Higgins Avenue and Front Street. Coffee said the story of the Mercantile Co. is larger than the building itself.
He added that downtown has suffered in the years that the Mercantile has sat empty, including several of his tenants.
“We’ve been neighbors of the Mercantile for a long period of time,” said Coffee. “I can tell you, based upon what I know of our tenants, the economic health of our downtown is at best fair. When the Macy’s store was closed, one of the tenants said his business dropped 20 percent and has not yet recovered. The Mercantile has been vacant for far too long.”
Throughout the evening, questions continued to linger regarding the availability of new market tax credits and cap rates. Questions also surrounded the preservation commission itself.
On Thursday, after weeks of allegations, City Attorney Jim Nugent told the city’s development arm that several members of the commission had engaged in conduct that suggests they are no longer “neutral, impartial, unbiased, fair and objective with respect to the pending demolition permit.”
The concerns named commission members Mike Monsos, Steve Adler, Kate Kolwicz and Cheryl Cote. Only Cote elected to recuse herself from the process. The others chose to continue on, even if conflicted, though Adler abstained when it came to voting on whether to stay a decision for another month.
“I have not had the opportunity to talk to an attorney and get some advice,” said Adler. “I don’t know where I stand and I don’t know what I should decide. I don’t feel fit to make a decision since they (City Attorney’s Office) came out today without deliberation or input.”
Kolwicz, who has posted numerous times to Facebook supporting a petition to block the demolition permit, said she relies on social media for additional information and declined to recuse herself form the process.
Monsos, who also has been active on Facebook, chose to stay involved as well.
“I felt it was my responsibly to figure out, as we’re supposed to do under the preservation ordinance, whether this (demolition permit) is the only option,” said Monsos. “Facebook, good or bad, is one of the ways you stay in touch with what people are thinking.”
But some suggest such concerns aren’t relevant to the decision facing the commission. It’s members are charged with considering the permit as submitted or finding other feasible alternatives, which the property owners say no longer exist.
“If your decision is to still not approve the permit, I would appreciate you not delaying it any longer,” said building owner JP Williamson, who’d flown in from North Carolina to attend the hearing.
Given concerns of bias, Adler asked Williamson if it was possible to set aside the conflict and start over. Williamson said that was up to the commission and what action it chose to take regarding fairness.
“That’s your personal decision, whether you want to expose yourself or the city to liability,” Williamson said. “I’d like to know what you need to know to make an informed decision. If there’s specific questions you’re not informed on, you have the opportunity right here to become more informed.”
The commission is expected to take up the issue again next month. If it fails to reach a decision, the permit will be automatically issued on June 7. However, developers have said that changing interest rates, a fluctuating market and other financial matters could jeopardize the $30 million project if the city continues to delay the proceedings.