Missoula’s historic schools, churches and retail shops could find new uses under a streamlined approval process – with development incentives – approved earlier this month.

Already, the new “adaptive reuse overlay” ordinance is drawing positive reviews from developers and property owners, as well as from historic preservation advocates.

Overall, the new ordinance aims to support Missoula’s historic preservation, promote environmental sustainability and affordable housing, while boosting economic and community development.

Benefits of the new adaptive reuse overlay ordinance – which basically means overlaying or building upon an existing structure – include incentives in the form of less expensive city fees, flexibility in maintaining a slice of Missoula history and the savings provided by avoiding demolition costs.

Ward 3 City Councilwoman Gwen Jones, who served on the ordinance committee, foresees Missoula melding the old with the new as the overlay widens zoning potential.

“This is a great example of setting up a positive environment to entice people to come forward and try and preserve some of these great buildings that we have in Missoula,” she said. “I see it as a way of really fostering a lot of creativity and creating character in the long run. I do believe buildings are meant to be used, meant to be lived in for whoever is here at the time.”

Jones envisions endless possibilities for Missoula:

“It brings to mind SoHo in New York or South of Market in San Francisco (known as SOMA), where there’s been some real rejuvenation and old warehouses have been turned into fantastic spaces,” she said. “I’m curious to see what happens. The whole dynamic of setting this up to be positive and forward thinking and incentivizing property owners to get creative and make it work for the here and now while preserving the past – I’m very supportive of it.”

The City Council gave the ordinance its 10-0 blessing, with two members absent, encouraging owners to develop new purposes for historic buildings.

Emily Scherrer, city historic preservation officer, touted the ordinance as a multi-faceted boon for the city and its overall zoning approach.

“This proposal is consistent with the growth policy in many ways: related to livability, community design, promoting sustainability through reuse of existing buildings,” Scherrer told the council on August 12 prior to the vote. It ties in with the ongoing downtown master plan and encourages historic preservation, economic development, zero-waste goals and increased housing.

In Scherrer’s presentation, she emphasized that the ordinance will work “to incentivize the preservation of historically significant buildings in Missoula by supporting the reuse of buildings while also maintaining and protecting a neighborhood’s unique historic built form and character. The regulations provide a viable alternative for the use of underutilized or vacant buildings within the city.”

A strong review process with clear-cut regulations encourages building owners who submit applications to provide careful, long-range plans.

“These changes help to incentivize through a different process than we’re typically used to for rezoning, which can be difficult to support and impossible to accomplish,” said Scherrer.

Among the reuse possibilities may be turning a historic school into housing or a hotel, or converting a church into a corner market, she added. In short, “to be adapted into a new use that zoning wouldn’t normally permit under existing code.”

After an applicant submits a thoughtful proposal, the review committee criteria, assessed on a district-by-district basis, would scrutinize how such an overlay would affect traffic, parking, the landscape and the character of a neighborhood, said Scherrer.

“If a bungalow house wants to become a coffee house, that will be different from a major commercial building that wants to become a hotel,” she said.

Applicants must demonstrate an alternative means or method of protecting public health, safety and welfare – and a commitment to preservation of the area they want to adaptively reuse, she said. Ultimately, the City Council will vote on each proposal, following a public hearing.

“Everything is going to be case by case, especially if it’s in a residential neighborhood,” said Scherrer.

Brett Poryear, the tasting room manager at Montgomery Distiller, mixes drinks on a Tuesday afternoon. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Brett Poryear, the tasting room manager at Montgomery Distiller, mixes drinks on a Tuesday afternoon. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

At least three deeply engaged local business owners have given big thumbs-up to the new ordinance.

Jim Pelger, responsible for developing and remodeling the historic Lincoln School in the Rattlesnake, is now part of a team redeveloping the 1910 military hospital at Fort Missoula.

He wants the city to maintain its unique historic character while forgoing the cookie-cutter designs common in other, nondescript cities.

“By having the new adaptive overlay ordinance in place, the playing field will be leveled,” said Pelger. “In my opinion, developers will now consider renovation rather than demolition of historic buildings, which ultimately will be a huge benefit to our community.”

Pelger’s passion for historic preservation still has him grieving over the loss of the Missoula Mercantile Building, which was deconstructed to make way for a new hotel and other businesses amid considerable protest and controversy.

“As we, increasingly, lose historic buildings in our community, we begin to look and feel like every other community in the nation, which is what motivates me to do the work I do,” added Pelger. “I deeply love Missoula and want to be a very small part of maintaining and preserving one of the things that is so cool about it.

“Unless they specialize in historic preservation, most developers are focused on the financial bottom line, which means removing buildings to increase density, maximize profits and decrease risk.”

Jesse Dodson, a local real estate attorney and developer, is in the early planning stages for a potential historic residential building.

"The new overlay district offers certain zoning incentives – including the potential for increased density – that will put historic buildings on more equal footing with vacant land,” Dodson told Missoula Current. “It is another positive step the city is taking to encourage historic preservation and promote attainable housing."

Ryan Montgomery, who opened Montgomery Distillery downtown at 129 W. Front St. seven years ago, said the ordinance raises community awareness about the importance of historic preservation. He submitted a letter of support to the research committee.

Brett Poryear, the tasting room manager at Montgomery Distiller in downtown Missoula, prepares for the evening crowd. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Brett Poryear, the tasting room manager at Montgomery Distiller in downtown Missoula, prepares for the evening crowd. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“After the Mercantile building was mostly demolished, I think a lot of people in Missoula had mixed feelings about that,” said Montgomery, adding that creating new businesses in the space is good. “But it’s sad for people to have a historic piece of history go away. That’s where I come from – historic preservation was an impetus to get involved.”

“If someone was going to buy a historic building, from what I’ve read on their description of what they presented, it allows different uses for that zoning area,” said Montgomery. “It makes it more flexible. Since this building is historical, we’re going to make it a lot (easier) for people to use the building instead of tearing it down.”

Someone with an underutilized or vacant building in the city now has a viable alternative to clearing the lot.

Montgomery opened the distillery in the Schilling Block, a historic building built in 1882. He has no plans to expand the distillery since the ordinance was passed, but he wants others to take advantage of the enhanced options.

“We were allowed to do what we wanted to do in this location, which is great,” added Montgomery. “It makes a lot of sense to give the city the flexibility to do what they can to keep the historical buildings.”

Sherrer said her committee wrote the ordinance after researching several other city ordinances on adaptive reuse and following the National Trust for Historic Preservation model.