Parties struggle for compromise in protracted Mercantile debate

HomeBase is proposing to build a custom five-story Marriott Hotel on the corner of Higgins and Front in downtown Missoula.

By Martin Kidston

The Missoula City Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee led a tense meeting Wednesday over the future of the Mercantile, one that saw the developer behind a $30 million hotel proposed for the property nearly walk away in frustration.

Over the three-hour session, the debate saw several members of the committee push HomeBase to include the Mercantile’s brick facade into its new hotel project. Other committee members said the attempt to dictate design encroached on the developer’s private property rights.

Last week, the committee found that the Historic Preservation Commissioner erred by denying HomeBase a permit to demolish or deconstruct the Mercantile. After the decision, the committee asked Andy Holloran, representing HomeBase, to return this week to discuss the design of a custom hotel proposed for the site.

Holloran agreed and unveiled his company’s latest plans – plans that have undergone several changes in recent months. HomeBase has worked to respond to community criticisms and the demands of the committee, Holloran said.

“We’ve spent a lot of time, effort and capital to incorporate some of the feedback we’ve heard,” he said. “What we want to do is have a design that’s authentic and true.”

The latest rendition makes stronger use of the street corners with massing and design, and includes some of the Mercantile’s historic features. It also plays off the property’s historic neighbors, including the Florence and the Wilma.

The design also includes an internal mews – a museum intended to pay homage to the property’s past. The five-story masonry structure offers outdoor seating and retail space that opens to the sidewalk.

“We have massive storefront windows that can open so we can encourage the indoor-outdoor pedestrian life that doesn’t currently exist,” Holloran said. “It extends that sense of commerce, retail and pedestrian activity further down Front Street, and we think that’s important.”

Despite the new design and its efforts to pay tribute to the site’s commercial past, several members of the council pushed HomeBase to go further by preserving the Mercantile’s western facade.

The request led to a terse exchange at one point during the meeting. HomeBase said the request, driven by a handful of committee members looking to appease preservation advocates, was a potential non-starter if compromise was truly the goal.

“I haven’t heard you offer anything today,” Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley told Holloran at one point. “Where are you willing to go beyond what you’ve shown today?”

Holloran said his firm has worked over the past few months to create a design based upon feedback from the community and members of the committee. The project is now in its third rendition.

Holloran said HomeBase may not be the right firm for the project, given the committee’s ongoing demands.

“This is a big project for us, and I think we’re at a tipping point,” said Holloran. “I don’t mean to say that as a threat. But we’ve tried very hard and have been very patient.”

Holloran later said HomeBase would consider including the Mercantile’s cornices and lintels, though engineering and designing the facade into a modern project would be difficult. Bentley said she supports the HomeBase proposal in concept.

“I knew this was going to be a tense meeting, so I’m not considering this a failure,” Bentley said. “I hear you saying you’ll look at some of the things that we discussed, specifically saving the facade on the pharmacy, and including some of the details currently on the facade. We have what we have, and we’re going to move forward.”

Other committee members expressed concern over the city’s effort to dictate the project’s design.

Ward 5 council member Julie Armstrong said the downtown business community supports redevelopment of the property, as does the broader community. The proposal by HomeBase marks the first time in six years that a project may actually come to fruition on the vacant site, she said.

“I don’t want HomeBase to walk away from this,” said Armstrong. “I’m very, very uncomfortable with telling a private property owner what to do with their property. I wouldn’t do it to any of you in this room.”

Ward 3 council member Gwen Jones said she also supports the project and urged HomeBase to stick with the process. The effort has been months in the making – a debate that has amassed more than 30 hours of hearings and deliberations before three different municipal bodies.

“I can’t think of a better idea than a five-story hotel going in on this corner, and I love the idea of retail and the mews, and because there is great support for that, we don’t talk about it because it’s not an issue,” Jones said. “If we can figure out these last few issues, this will be a great project.”mercantile hotel

Page Goode, president of Preserve Historic Missoula, and Chere Jiusto of the Montana Preservation Alliance in Helena, urged the committee to preserve as much of the Mercantile as possible before making its vote.

“From a preservation standpoint, we’re not obstructing progress when we talk about saving the integrity of the Merc,” Jiusto said. “We’re talking about how to do this to the best of our abilities and in a way that results in a nice final design.”

“We think the sequence of events surrounding the Merc has revealed its importance,” added Goode. “We can’t measure sentimental attachment to the Merc in dollars and sense.”

Bentley said the committee will likely consider two options at next week’s meeting, one being the design presented Wednesday by HomeBase and a second including the concessions sought by Bentley and Ward 1 council member Heidi West. The committee is expected to vote on granting HomeBase a permit to deconstruct the Mercantile and move forward with its project.

Money to aid in deconstruction could be made available by the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, so long as the committee approves the permit, Bentley said.

“It’s important to MRA that whatever portion of this building goes away, that it’s deconstructed and not bulldozed,” said MRA Director Ellen Buchanan. “There are too many wonderful materials in the building that need to be saved. There’s a chunk of funding that needs to be available to do that, or we get a bulldozer.”

HomeBase has said in the past that it plans to deconstruct the Merc and repurpose the materials.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston a