Developers taking time on Missoula Hip Strip condo projects

2009-07-02T00:00:00Z Developers taking time on Missoula Hip Strip condo projectsBy STEVE MILLER for the Missoulian missoulian.com
July 02, 2009 12:00 am  • 

It seems as though construction at the corner of Brooks Street and South Higgins Avenue is as much a Missoula mainstay as the M on Mount Sentinel or the Hip Strip itself.

However, three years into the project, developer Eric Hefty insists the end result will be well worth the wait - for those who can afford it, anyway.

Hefty's project, simply known as The Corner, is an eight-unit condominium development across the street from Hellgate High School. His wife Cheryl designed the interior, while he designed the exterior. Cheryl describes the look as an "old-new" design - a more modern, Flatiron appearance on the outside, with a rustic yet modern look within.

Hefty used recycled wood from the Missoula YMCA, Sentinel High School and a Hamilton barn to build his condominiums, but it's not out of recession-driven scarcity. In fact, using the old gym bleachers for the ceilings and the timeworn planks for the floors and roof will add another dimension for the tenants who call The Corner their home, he said.

"Each piece of wood has got its own character and personality," Hefty said. "It's really beautiful stuff."

At the moment, five condos have sold, but the $3 million construction project is still a work in progress. Hefty said two units are still available, and he plans to keep one for himself and his family.

Built on a space formerly occupied by a gas station then an office building, The Corner will include an underground parking garage, an outdoor plaza and an "eco-space elevator," one that operates without an entire room of machinery.

And it's fast moving, too.

"You can't even tell it's going," he said. "It's just incredible."

Prices for the condos range from $350,000 to $500,000, with some including a rooftop garden - and all within walking distance of downtown.

"I think people are getting more used to the idea of living in town," he said.

While Hefty's project may be swinging for the fences, he admits that perhaps now isn't "the best time to be a developer," and believes that the Missoula condo market is "probably on hold."

He's not the only one affected by the market downturn.

Right down the street from The Corner stands the Babs Building, a prominent fixture on the Missoula Hip Strip. Designed by famed local architect A.J. Gibson at the turn of the 20th century, the Babs was once a prime housing location for University of Montana students and a social hotspot with an old speakeasy in the attic; in recent years, however, it's needed a face-lift.

According to real estate agent Ed Coffman of Lambros Real Estate ERA, it's getting just that.

Work on the Babs began about a year ago. Now, with the model unit completely renovated and furnished, in addition to a reconstructed front porch, a basement recreation area and a soon-to-be-installed elevator, Coffman said people are finally able to see the finished product: the Babs in a light befitting its former glory.

"The fact that someone looked at it, saw its potential and wanted to restore it is great for the community," Coffman said.

With 14 units ranging from $195,000 to slightly more than $400,000, Coffman said two have been sold so far and two more are under contract. What might explain the slow sales, Coffman said, is the difficulty of getting a loan on a condo in this economic climate.

"The condo market here serves a decent purpose for people who want housing affordable," Coffman said. "We're not Florida, we're not Las Vegas."

The Missoula condo market as a whole, according to Dan Lear, is "better than some areas," yet "very flat."

Lear, a sales associate for Prudential Montana Real Estate, said that while the federal first-time homebuyer tax credit helps a little, out-of-state buyers in the condo market are finding the "Montana dream" fizzling out.

"That's not happening," Lear said.

He also noted that renovation projects, such as the Babs, are facing many hurdles with getting loans.

"The lending situation is tight across the board," Lear said.

For the Missoula market, Lear said, a careful approach has definitely helped.

"It's a more cautious market, which in the long run is a better market," Lear said.

Until the market comes out of a nosedive, the builders with the supplies and know-how will keep plowing ahead.

"The only people who are building are the people with the horsepower and in niche marketing," Lear said.

In the high-end niche market, Coffman hopes that the Babs' historical significance, prime location and overall pleasant living atmosphere will transcend the national downturn.

"The experience is supposed to be that of fine living," Coffman said, adding that the price is "certainly worth consideration if a person wants to live in a really high-quality, cool, historic building."

At The Corner, Hefty's son Nels, who's also working on the project, believes the finished project will appeal to a "demographic that can withstand the economic ebb and flow."

His father agreed.

"In a tough market, you've got to have something above average."

Steve Miller is a senior studying print journalism and English literature at the University of Montana who is interning at the Missoulian this summer. He can be reached at 523-5259 or at steve.miller@

missoulian.com.

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