A local developer has big plans for a vacant gravel lot on a prominent corner in Lolo. Al Zepeda envisions roughly 200 housing units, including “hobbit homes,” as well as Forest Service lookout-type homes, a coffee shop and perhaps a community garden and an ice-skating pond.
Zepeda and his team built the Lolo Peak Brewery & Grill and he’s developed several other projects in the area, including a big housing complex in East Missoula. But now he’s set his sights on the gravel lot on the corner of Highway 93 and Ridgeway Drive.
“Right now what we’re doing is taking old Lolo gravel pit and re-purposing it into a residential housing development that is going to include apartments for rent, homes for sale and condominiums for sale,” he explained. “Overall there’s approximately a couple hundred units contemplated.”
He estimates the project will take five to seven years to complete, but the first phase will be 34 multi-family units in six buildings. The second phase will be a three-story condominium building with units for sale and for rent. There will also be a commercial space on the ground floor.
“I really want to bring a coffee/sandwich shop to Lolo, anchoring a corner of the commercial building,” he said. “I want to have a little skating pond, basically a water feature that’s big enough for kids with hockey sticks to use, like I did at McCormick Park (in Missoula) in my younger days.”
He said the multi-family units will be similar to what he’s developed in East Missoula.
“But the (single-family) housing is going to be a little bit different,” he said. “We’re not building big custom run-of-the-mill tract-type homes you see all over town. We’re building hobbit home concepts, and some Forest Service lookout-inspired perch homes. Between the two they’ll be pretty livable.”
The hobbit homes will be “earth-sheltered,” he explained, meaning dirt on the roof. There’s a steep hillside on the property that they’ll be partially dug into.
“That takes advantage of the insulating properties of the earth and they’ll blend into the surroundings,” he said, “in a way that Bilbo Baggins would probably want to live there. We have some terrain that lends to that style of home. It’s a fairly new concept here. It’s happened in other places. We’re certainly not re-inventing the way a home is built, but giving it different looks.”
The perch-style homes will be on top of the hill, Zepeda said, to take advantage of a scenic vista.
“We’re taking a Forest Service lookout concept and blending it into the hillside,” he said. “They’ll offer amazing views.”
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One thing on his wish list is a community garden, much like those run by Garden City Harvest all over Missoula.
“The concept is to assign individual plots to various owners of the condos and people in the apartments,” he said. “In our master design there is going to be community plot areas and we’re hoping to create an area for a greenhouse. It will be beautiful growing vegetables, and every Saturday if you want to sell extra product to the brewery, we would take that and have a farm-to-table concept on Saturday and Sunday. If you have extra going to waste we’ll take it and use it.”
He’s been working on the project for about four years.
“Finally after four years of hard work and a lot of money going out the door, this thing starts to come out of the ground,” he said. “It’s going to be pretty awesome. What a great spot. You go across the street and you’re at a great place to eat and across the highway you have Harvest Foods (grocery store) there, and with the bike path you can literally bike to Missoula.”
Zepeda has an e-bike that allows him to switch on an electric motor, so he’s biking all over now. He believes the development could attract people who want to commute by e-bike to Missoula.
“Overall, what I’d like to do is attract a business that wants to rent e-bikes,” he said. “You don’t need a vehicle. It would provide such an awesome mode of transportation.”
He broke ground this week on the project. Zepeda believes Lolo is in the midst of a resurgence.
“The beauty of Lolo is you get a little small-town serenity and you can hop to what is becoming a big town with congestion,” he said, referring to Missoula. “Lolo does offer that small-town serenity.”
Kevin Noland, a member of the Lolo Community Council who's not a part of the project, said it looks to be a positive thing for the community.
"We're excited about it," he said. "Having looked at the plans for what he's got going in there, it's going to match what's on the hill already with the townhomes and the brewery."
The gravel pit was controversial when it was first put in, so most people in Lolo are glad to see it developed, he added.
"Lolo is not just a pass-through community," he said. "We like people to slow down and stop and say hi. So any more development that looks clean and professional and upscale is certainly going to help out. I'm excited for that lot to be developed into nice-looking establishments."