After hearing two and a half hours of protests from scores of locals, the Missoula City Council sent the proposed Fourth Street condo project back to committee as its Monday night meeting spilled into Tuesday morning, postponing a decision until after the new year.
Council members did signal intent to eventually approve the project, but with hopes more substantial conditions could force the developer to meet some of the community demands around affordable housing and historic preservation in exchange for approval.
The developer and property owner, Cole Bergquist, intends to replace six affordable market-rate rental houses, some of which are more than a century old, with a 48-unit high-end condo building and underground parking garage. But Bergquist needs the city to approve a zoning change to allow higher density and give up sections of adjoining city property to allow the project to take place as designed.
Jeff Gardner, one of three current tenants of the historic homes who spoke at the meeting, said he has watched Missoula morph into something he didn't recognize over the last 43 years, 21 of those spent living in his Fourth Street apartment.
"Send it back to committee and try to find another way. Another way that maintains the integrity of the neighborhood and the character of Missoula," Gardner said. "Find a way where we all can live here, because, after all, where do you go after the Last Best Place?"
Council member Jordan Hess, who also chairs one of the committees that will again mull the project, said in his closing comments that it was important the council take the opportunity it has in vacating the city property to set strong conditions guiding the development, the only bargaining chip it may have to do so.
“What happens if we say no? That’s something I’ve heard a lot tonight is, 'Say no, say no,'” Hess said.
He went on to say that without taking advantage of its ability to require things like affordable housing guarantees and some level of historic preservation options, Bergquist would be free to tear down the historic homes and redevelop the property if the council denied his requests outright.
The decision before the council Monday did have a set of six conditions, though many of the locals who spoke questioned how enforceable or effective many of them were.
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One of the conditions gave two options centered on affordable housing. One option would have required the rental units, slated to make up a quarter of the 48 total units, to give 30 days of priority to federal housing voucher holders. The other option would have required 10% of the owner-occupied condos, which works out to four condos, to be sold at an affordable rate as approved by the city’s Housing and Community Development Office.
At the last committee meeting, Council member Heidi West recommended the council turn that condition from an either/or to requiring both the voucher-priority and the affordable ownership. But Nick Kaufman, a planner with WGM Group representing the developer, said requiring both would prevent the project from being profitable enough to pencil out.
"Heidi, you talked about making the ‘or’ an ‘and.’ We’d like to keep the ‘or.’ It’s really important to the viability of this project. I know you all think that developers get rich and their consultants get richer. It’s simply not a fact," Kaufman said, eliciting laughter from the audience.
"I'm not getting paid for stand-up (comedy), Mr. Mayor."
Some public commenters demanded at least 20%, or eight total, of the condos be sold at city-sanctioned affordable rates, which they said would amount to a wash for the affordable housing market, as about the same number would be lost if the current structures are demolished.
Hess said he wanted to analyze what other cities have done in situations like this, as far as the affordable ownership percentages, prior to the Land Use and Planning and Public Works committee meetings scheduled for Jan. 8.
Another condition would require the developer to contribute $10,000 for moving any of the historic homes off the site, if there were anyone interested in moving them. At the council meeting, Kaufman offered to raise the contribution to $12,500 per structure.
According to documents attached to the council agenda, Jim Pelger, one of the developers who renovated the old Lincoln schoolhouse in the Rattlesnake into condos, is interested in moving at least one of the houses. According to an email from Pelger to the city's historic preservation officer, Emy Sherrer, a moving estimate was quoted at $38,000.
Sherrer, who was at the council meeting but did not speak publicly, shook her head as Kaufman characterized Bergquist's "constant contact" with her office over the preservation of the historic homes. She whispered the word "twice" as Kaufman noted the two times Bergquist had met with her.