The Missoula City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to approve rezoning the area now occupied by historic brick homes on South Fourth Street East, along with vacation of the rights of way, to make way for a four-story, 48-unit upscale condo building.
“This seemed like, since it was so unpopular and there were so many problems with it, that this would be a project that the public might be able to sway the council to say no to,” said Brian West, who attended the meeting. “The council just did what they always do, which is serving the interest of developers.”
Public Works and Land Use and Planning committees discussed the matter on Wednesday and councilors approved the resolution, under conditions that developer and property owner Cole Bergquist agree to help pay for the relocation of the historic homes and include affordable housing for 20% of the units. The topic will come to the council floor with time for additional public comment at the next meeting on Monday, Jan. 27.
The council has discussed the topic at multiple meetings and heard hours of public comment, with one meeting in December extending past 2 a.m.
Councilman Jordan Hess said Wednesday that he has come to support the motion after considering the possible outcomes of saying no, which would likely result in 11 residential units instead of more than 40 that would be allowed with the rezoning.
"The 11 dwelling units that would surely be constructed, that would be surely unaffordable — that's an untenable outcome given what we have as an option with the leverage provided to us with the right-of-way vacation," Hess said. "If we don't build density here, then where?"
Hess and others at the meeting said that the project is in line with the city's growth policy, which recommends high-density residential development near the city's urban core. He said it's also an opportunity for the city to use the right-of-way vacation as a tool to accomplish city objectives, such as historic preservation or affordable housing.
The condition to address affordable housing requires the developer to provide a voucher preference for new multi-family rental units or to construct affordable homeownership units equaling 20% of the total units constructed for sale.
Nick Kaufman, a senior planner for WGM Group who represents Bergquist, asked the council to change the number of deed-restricted units from 20% to 15%, citing what he called risks that developers have to take on that include redevelopment costs, utility relocation, historic preservation costs, infrastructure upgrades and the cost of public improvements.
“In terms of viability, we know we can do it at 15%,” Kaufman said. “We don't believe we can do it at 20%.”
Kaufman said requiring 20% of the units for sale to be affordably priced could also drive up the cost of the other units, which would help subsidize the lower-priced units.
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Councilor Jesse Ramos offered an amendment to change the designated 20% of affordable homeownership units to equal 15%, with the support of Councilor Sandra Vasecka, but the majority of the council voted the amendment down and then unanimously passed the resolution.
Councilor Gwen Jones voted no to the amendment because she said she felt she needed more information to understand the impact to the developer of requiring 15% versus 20%.
"I want to be basing a decision like this on numbers and analysis instead of theory," Jones said.
Rena Hansen, a Missoula resident who spoke at the meeting, said she felt more details needed to be hammered out before the City Council took a vote, and noted that the 20% provision for affordable housing units would be rendered obsolete if all of the units were rented.
Councilor Heather Harp said she would like to see language added to address how the number of affordable units would be affected by rental units.
The council's approval came after several Missoula residents commented in opposition to the project, including Leslie Van Stavern Millar, who has called Missoula home since 1972. Van Stavern Millar owns and operates the Brunswick Building and said her husband owns Carlo's One Night Stand.
Van Stavern Millar asked the council to oppose what she called "another gentrified, high-density, anywhere USA building in our downtown."
"One of the reasons I settled here is that I appreciated the unique community, I liked the older brick buildings," she said.
Van Stavern Millar said she feels newer buildings lack innovative design, and asked the council to think back on similar hearings in the early 90s when Kaufman supported a project on the site of the old H.O. Bell building on the corner of Higgins and Forth Street.
"It was the first car dealership in the state," Van Stavern Millar said. "It was a brick building. If it existed today, it would be fully occupied, it would be very desirable space."
Van Stavern Millar said the decision to tear down the building went against the community's wishes and that "what we have now is an ugly gas station."