Architect hopes project will be worthy 'sister' to Wilma Building

If Missoula's downtown follows in the footprint of the Millennium Building, the city's bold new future will feel more like a step back in time.

Despite the building's new-world construct - with state-of-the-art fiber-optic wiring and sleek mirrored windows - the new riverside high-rise is old-world in theory.

"It's really a loose transition of the European village concept," said Bruce Bugbee, a Missoula businessman who will work out of the sixth floor and live on the eighth floor in one of the building's four upscale condominiums.

"When you work in the area you live (in), the area takes on a whole different life," he said. "It no longer is just a working place or sleeping place or living place - it becomes a place you interact with 24 hours a day."

As in villages of yesteryear, and in modern, vibrant communities, commerce districts hustle and bustle around the clock with an energy that is vibrant and welcoming, Bugbee said.

Unlike most of downtown America, which becomes desolate after the 5 p.m. workday ends, thriving communities buzz and hum because the area is home to all aspects of human life, he said.

"When you become fully integrated, you smooth off the rough edges of your living environment," he said. "Then it becomes a more occupant-friendly environment."

Efficiently constructed buildings are also environment-friendly, Bugbee said. The Millennium's petite footprint, which takes up about one-fourth of an acre, would, under typical suburban building regulations, spread out over about eight acres, he said.

Admittedly, Bugbee said, the Millennium Building won't abruptly change the character of Missoula once it is fully occupied, nor does he expect Missoula to suddenly become like a Jerusalem, where carpet dealers, farmers and artisans sell their wares on one floor of a building and live in another.

"It's such a small statement about that," he said. "I don't know if (the Millennium Building) makes a difference … it's more of a statement of being committed to the downtown."

Of the building's six floors of dedicated office space, only the second floor remains open, and two condominiums are still available, said investor Allen Fetscher, who, like Bugbee will work and live in the high-rise.

Historical Research Associates owns two of the floors, while a handful of Missoula lawyers, psychologists, real estate businesses and other professionals inhabit the other floors, Fetscher said. Most of the occupants will move into the building around the end of February.

None of the investors are willing to share the price of the unique, luxury living, but Bugbee confirms the purchase price of one of the 2,500-square-foot, riverfront condominiums is less than $1 million.

"Let's just say we would invite inquiries," he said.

However, an anonymous source said serious inquiries begin around $350,000. And, yes, pets are allowed.

Whatever the price, both condo dwellers and workers are privy to Missoula's priceless vistas, in particular, an unfettered vision of Lolo Peak and a bowling alley-like look up the gutter of the Bitterroot Mountains.

From his southeast corner office on the fifth floor, Tim Engelhardt can see his second-favorite seat in Missoula - his spot in Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

Since he and his company, Historical Research Associates, moved into their new digs two weeks ago, Engelhardt admits to a decrease in work productivity.

"It takes some time adjusting to the view," he said.

It will also take the community some adjustment to the downtown view, which has been altered by the building, said Dennis Greeno, one of the architects of the project.

Once the building's two-tiered parking garage and the walkway from the Higgins Avenue bridge to the building is complete, Greeno hopes the community will be pleased with the finished product.

"I think people will be pleasantly surprised - particularly the walkway," he said. "The design is based on the juxtaposition between the city's diagonal grid and organic forms of the river and mountains."

In other words, the stone-and-concrete walkway will be functional, and have curving walls that look much like the shape of the river, if viewed from above, and like mountains, when standing in front and beside it, he said.

"We wanted a design that fits in and has a sense of belonging," Greeno said. "We tried to be contemporary, yet like a sister to the Wilma. It will be there a 100 years or more, and maybe then, it will be loved near as much as the Wilma."

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

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