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Missoula Public Library looking for city approval to complete land swap

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Supporters of a new Missoula Public Library say the facility will serve as a national model and begin to realize the city’s vision of a cultural corridor, aligning with the Missoula Children’s Theater and Kiwanis Park in downtown Missoula.

By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

A proposed land swap between the Missoula Public Library and a neighboring property owner won the support of the City Council’s Committee of the Whole this week, through the vote wasn’t unanimous and faces further discussion in the weeks ahead.

Members of the library’s board of trustees and the Foundation for the Missoula Public Library told council members that the land swap – arranged between neighboring property owner Terry Payne and the library – will enable the facility to remain open while the new library is built next door.

That will require voters to approve a $30 million bond this November. The swap also requires city approval since the city’s name appears on the deed for the land upon which the currently library sits.

“As we began exploring the options, we became aware that the lot directly to the east of us might be available,” said Rita Henkel, chair of the library’s board of trustees. “This will help us immensely. We won’t have to find another place to rent and we can stay in the building we’re in during construction.”

The property to the east encompasses one city block and is currently home to a collection of older houses, several of which have been converted to apartment buildings.

Ward 4 council member John DiBari expressed concern over losing downtown housing and possibly displacing low-income renters. He also suggested the structures may have historic value in voting against the proposed exchange.

“Before I’d be willing to support this, I’d like to hear from the community of folks that represent constituents for housing and affordable housing, and also the historic preservation folks,” DiBari said. “I think it’s reasonable that we ask some questions about the character of that lot where the uses would be converted.”

Frank Scariano, chair of the Foundation for the Missoula Public Library, said the city block and its collection of apartments are home to roughly 38 residents, most of them students and renters. He noted the student housing project planned for construction across the street – a project that will include roughly 164 new units.

The North Missoula Community Development Corporation is also gearing up to construct several new housing units on Front Street. The additional of new housing would more than compensate for the loss of housing on the block eyed by the library, Scariano said.

“We feel good about the direction downtown is going,” he said. “Those housing units next door are definitely going to be replaced with additional quantity.”

Scariano, who often works with historic properties as a rehabilitation and remodeling contractor, also questioned the houses’ historic value, saying they were in generally poor condition. While they contribute to a larger historic district, he said, they alone aren’t registered as historic places.

“I’d always advocate for keeping a building, but those houses are in tough, tough shape,” Scariano said. “There’s been significant ‘remuddeling’ done to them – not remodeling. I think they’re beyond historic preservation. In my opinion, it would be hard to find historic nature there.”

The issue was brought to bear after Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler learned that when voters approved bonding to build the current library in 1973, funding fell short by $213,000. As a result, both the city and Missoula County each contributed $106,500 to make up the difference.

That makes the land upon which the current library sits jointly owned.

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The current library was built in 1973 when the county’s population was just 60,000. It was expected to last 30 years. The county is now home to 115,000 residents.

“Going back through history, it turns out the city is on the deed for the land the library is on now,” Marler said. “Eventually, we’d need a resolution stating that if voters approve the bond, then the City Council will support the transfer of land between where the library is now and the Payne family, where the library is going to go.”

Ward 2 council member Harlan Wells also sought details on the swap and the value of each lot. While the library’s representatives didn’t have a precise value immediately available, they said the exchange was equitable.

“We did have an assessment for both pieces of property, and they’re equal in value,” said Library Director Honore Bray. “With the property scraped, the value would be the same. Each one of us is responsible for the tear-down of the property we’re going to build on.”

While the swap is pending approval by the full City Council, library representatives maintained the need for the new facility. Scariano said supporters are looking to privately raise $5 million to accompany the bond and have secured roughly $1.5 million thus far.

Realizing the land swap would make the process easier moving forward, he added.

“The land swap is a tremendous opportunity,” said Scariano. “The library’s mandate is to stay open, so this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Terry Payne is going to sell the block anyway. It’s an imminent sale and will go to the highest and best use of whatever someone wants to do.”