A popular Missoula pub is caught between the city’s vision for the downtown district and the concerns of a local agency that relies on revenues generated from parking meters to pay off debt and balance its budget.
The Thomas Meagher Bar unveiled plans last month to build an outdoor dining patio on West Pine Street, a move the city supports in concept as it works to build a vibrant downtown atmosphere.
But the promise of outdoor dining and a hip evening atmosphere would eliminate six on-street parking spaces, and that has members of the City Council and the Missoula Parking Commission concerned.
“These are six spaces in a very high-demand area,” said Anne Guest, director of the Missoula Parking Commission. “The parking commission will be losing revenue for this, not only for just the meter revenues from each space, but also the fine revenue from future tickets.”
Members of the City Council’s Public Works Committee gathered last week to discuss the issue and revisit an ordinance passed in April that intended to make it easier for downtown businesses to make simple changes in the public right of way, such as awnings and signs.
But Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler said the changes weren’t intended to allow administrative approval for major alterations to the right of way, such as that being proposed by the owners of the Thomas Meagher Bar, a popular Irish-themed pub.
“That project, as proposed, includes some pretty significant changes – permanent changes to the right of way right in front of the bar,” said Marler. “While it sounded like a good project that’s great for the bar and interesting to downtown, it brought up questions of how we handle right-of-way occupancy and encroachment requests.”
Members of the committee directed Development Services to bring back proposed changes to the ordinance that would require similar projects go before the City Council and a public hearing, not just a simple administrative review.
“I realize this is a significant capital investment for a business to make,” said Ward 1 council member Bryan von Lossberg. “Over time, there would be a lot of interest in an establishment doing this. But at some point, six spaces repeated over time becomes a real issue. Not that these six spaces here aren’t an issue.”
Over the past few months, the parking commission has worked to accommodate plans for an outdoor plaza on East Pine Street at the Missoula Art Museum, with which the city is a major partner.
The parking commission plans to add more short-term parking slots to mitigate the loss of 16 spaces needed to build the plaza. Guest recently said the effort would leave the city with a net gain of on-street parking over time.
Unlike the Missoula Art Museum, the Thomas Meagher Bar sits next door to City Hall and the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, and across the street from the Missoula County Administrative Building.
Guest said parking in the area represents some of the highest demand in the district. The parking commission must also abide by the covenants of a revenue bond it acquired to pay for the Park Place parking garage on East Front Street.
“We have three sources of revenue – leases, fines and meter rates,” said Guest. “Because our obligation to support the bond is based on these revenues, we’re not allowed to significantly change any one of those three revenue sources.”
While the covenants allow the parking commission to increase rates and fines to make up for the potential loss of a few parking spaces, Guest doesn’t believe such a move would be well received by the public.
Meter rates and fines are already expected to increase when the city begins installing its new centralized meters this year.
“I feel like we need a formal policy that addresses these kinds of issues as we move forward so they’re not handled on a case-by-case basis,” Guest said of the pub’s proposal.
During the last fiscal year, the commission’s 1,100 meters collected $472,000 in revenue, Guest said.
Mike Schmechel, a principal owner of the Thomas Meagher Bar, said the proposed outdoor dining area would be similar to a project he completed in Billings at the Montana Brewing Co.
“The city was trying to make Billings more pedestrian friendly, and it was decided it was acceptable to have some of these bulb-outs on less busy streets,” Schmechel said. “It’s been a very successful project and has brought a lot of vitality to the area.”
That vitality is just what Missoula is looking to bring to its own downtown district. The city’s core already bustles with energy, though some believe its outdoor dining options are limited.
The city’s Greater Downtown Master Plan, adopted in 2009, calls for efforts to create a “vibrant street for pedestrians,” and improvements that strive for a “high-quality pedestrian environment.”
Schmechel and Carl Posewitz of Paradigm Architects in Missoula believe the Thomas Meagher project fits well with the city’s downtown vision. Schmechel said his project in Billings faced similar questions over parking.
“I think it’s more important having a place that people want to go than being able to find parking right out front,” he said. “Sometimes people have to walk a little bit, just like they have to do at the mall sometimes.”
Mike Haynes, director of Development Services, said the project’s applicants approached Mayor John Engen with their proposal earlier this year. The mayor brought the concept to his policy advisory team.
“We looked at the proposal and basically, generally, supported the request based on it creating a more active and vibrant downtown,” Haynes said. “We did discuss a number of issues.”
The loss of parking stood among them. It was unknown this week how soon the city could complete changes to its ordinance, and how those changes would impact the pub’s project.
“The parking problem is a good problem to have,” said Ward 5 council member Mike O’Herron, who said it indicates a healthy downtown.
“But given that this has the potential to impact parking, the public space, the character or theme of downtown, I think we should have more process involved before we approve this type of change.”