Among retail tenants and at least two longtime renters, there is a little bit of concern but no full-on panic yet about recently unveiled redevelopment plans for the historic Penwell building on the Hip Strip in Missoula.
“I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself,” said poet and writer Dave Thomas, who has lived in the upper floor apartments known as The Montaignes for 37 years. “It’s not a big surprise. I’d kind of like to know what the timeline is, but I’ll wait and see how everything shakes out. I’ve got a pretty good deal here.”
The building’s owner, Kirk Duce of Missoula, also has said he doesn’t want the building to get bulldozed like the historic Missoula Mercantile nearby and he will make sure to take care of his longtime tenants like Thomas.
The Missoulian reported Wednesday about Duce and his father Ken Duce’s plan to completely remodel the interior of the building, with plans for an upscale food hall on the ground floor, Airbnb rentals on the upper floors, a rooftop deck with a bar, and a basement speakeasy-style restaurant.
“It’s very preliminary, that’s what it is now,” Kirk Duce said on Wednesday. “It’s just an idea. There are tons of hurdles on the Hip Strip in terms of parking without pissing off the neighborhood. There are a lot of challenges we have to go through to get it to happen."
Duce said he knows there's resistance to change but he's actually trying to save the building, which was built in 1910.
"We’re just local guys," he added. "We want to do the right thing for everybody and we don’t want to bulldoze it like Merc. We really want to keep the façade and the coolness of building. We like the funkiness of it.”
Kirk Duce agreed with his father that the building has severely outdated infrastructure and safety issues like steep stairs, uneven hallways, leaky plumbing, old electrical wiring and short railings.
“The commercial (tenants) have all kind of known since we bought it that something has to be done,” Duce explained. “When you have an old building, if you touch more than 10 percent of it, everything has to be done up to code. It’s a tricky process. You can’t just piecemeal stuff. If you touch a little bit of the building, then everything’s got to be up to code."
He said the building still has 110-year-old plumbing, and knob and tube wiring in the ceilings upstairs.
"It’s something that we’re going to have to address and this project gives us that opportunity," he noted.
The Montaignes are home to an interesting mix of people, and in 2011 the Missoulian sent a photographer and a writer to tell their stories.
Local artist Dirk Lee has lived at The Montaignes for a decade. He said news of an impending change is stressful but he realizes it’s still just a concept at this point.
“Affordable housing everywhere is disappearing,” he said. “This building’s got a lot of history and wonderful people.”
Lee said he doesn’t know anywhere in Missoula where he could afford to live if he can’t live in The Montaignes. However, he tries to keep things in perspective.
“What do you do,” he said. “I’m not in Aleppo (a war-ravaged city in Syria) or something."
Missoula’s housing prices have jumped more than 30 percent since 2010 while wages have stagnated, but local organizations are working to develop affordable options. Homeword, a nonprofit in Missoula, is looking for people who make less than the area median income to purchase affordable refurbished homes near the Missoula Food Bank for either $100,000 for a one-bedroom or $125,000 for a two-bedroom, far below Missoula’s median home sales price of over $280,000. Applications are due by Nov. 7 and more information can be found by calling 406-532-4663.
Max Gilliam has owned and operated Carlo’s One Night Stand, a costume and vintage clothing shop, for nearly 40 years in the building. He said Kirk Duce has been a great landlord.
“He’s been reliable and he’s always done what he said he’s going to do,” Gilliam said. “He’s been good to me. But (the news of the development plans) is probably unsettling for the people that live here. I know almost all of them. I’m 75 years old, so it doesn’t affect me as much as the other business owners.”
Gilliam said modernization and redevelopment is slowly changing the character of the district.
“Pretty soon, you won’t be able to call it the Hip Strip anymore,” he said.
Zach Ford, who owns and operates the Sports Exchange outdoor gear and consignment shop next door, said he isn’t too worried about the plans.
“There’s a lot of history in all these businesses,” he said.
The owner of the Bathing Beauties bead store on the corner declined to comment, as did the owner of Shakespeare & Co. bookstore.
Kirk Duce said he and his father will make sure Dave Thomas, who does maintenance in the building, and another longtime tenant will have places to live even if the new project comes to fruition.
“Seven of the tenants have lived here 15-plus years and we’ve kept their rents low,” Duce said. “Those seven still pay $300 or less in rent. We don’t want to lose those people. We don’t want to change the Hip Strip. We just want to redo our old building and keep it funky and cool. We’ve tried to do the right thing with trying to maintain it while still making a dollar off our investment, which at this point has been hard.”
Duce said he and his father haven’t figured out how to get enough parking to meet city-mandated requirements yet, which could be an unpassable obstacle. He said he and his father were approached by someone who told them about the food hall concept, where different chefs experiment while sharing a dishwashing and prep area and customers sit at communal seating. They found the idea intriguing and thought it might be a project that helps them save the façade of the building while allowing them to pay for expensive repairs to the safety, plumbing and structural systems.
“There’s nothing that is for sure,” Duce said. “We haven’t even got construction phases or figuring out budgets done. But it might pencil out.”