MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL: City should approve Merc permit, reform HPC
Missoulian editorial

MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL: City should approve Merc permit, reform HPC

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missoula mercantile

HomeBase Montana of Bozeman has applied for a permit to demolish the Missoula Mercantile building and replace the historic structure with a five-story, custom Residence Inn by Marriott. Although some city councilors have suggested there may be Tax Increment Financing available to preserve portions of the facade, members of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency's board of directors and staff have said other projects also need funding.

To no one’s surprise, after it finally ran out the clock on a demolition application for the Missoula Mercantile, the Historic Preservation Commission voted to deny the permit.

And as expected, HomeBase Montana, the Bozeman-based developers seeking to deconstruct the Mercantile and build a five-story, $30 million custom Mariott hotel in its place, appealed the decision to the Missoula City Council. At its regular Monday night meeting last week, the council agreed to review the appeal.

The Land Use and Planning committee will now study the issue and prepare a recommendation to the full council, which will hold a public hearing on June 27 and has until July 11 to make a final official decision on the matter.

Even then, however, Missoula’s city councilors should consider their work only half done. After reviewing the facts for themselves and voting on the fate of the Missoula Mercantile, the council must next turn its attention to the fate of the Historic Preservation Commission. Clearly, some reforms are necessary in order to prevent similar failures from occurring again in the future.

In its appeal, HomeBase says the commission failed in three very specific ways: it failed to invoke a 90-day delay or recognize a 60-day deadline; certain members failed to recuse themselves in violation of the applicant’s due process; and the voting commission members failed to base their decision on accurate findings of fact.

The first of these allegations could be charitably considered a procedural disagreement. The second two, however, are an indictment of the Historic Preservation Commission itself. Add to this the unprofessional conduct some members of the commission have demonstrated for the past few months, and it is obvious the time has come to make changes to either the requirements needed for a post on the commission, or to the commission’s scope of authority.

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Long before casting their vote, some members of the commission had made known their preference to preserve the Merc. Of course, it should come as no surprise that members of a historic preservation commission would hold a bias for preserving historic buildings. The commission is, after all, “designed to promote the preservation of historic and prehistoric sites, structures, objects, buildings and historic districts.”

However, rather than pledge to use their time as efficiently as possible before arriving at their foregone conclusion, commissioners instead announced an intention to use as much time as possible – and then proceeded to skip multiple meetings. Incredibly, at one meeting, only four members of the commission bothered to show up.

Of course, HomeBase attended that same meeting, as well as many others, prepared to answer questions. They shouldn’t have troubled themselves – not one commissioner asked one question of the developers, despite insisting on the need to continue to collect more information.

Worse yet, at their most recent meeting, commissioners actually dismissed factual evidence provided by HomeBase in support of the application, and led an hours-long discussion that at times strayed far afield of the main issue at hand.

For instance, provided with evidence that HomeBase had consulted with the State Historic Preservation Commission prior to submitting its application, the local commission debated the definition of “consult” before ultimately voting to agree that it was “unclear” whether the required consultation had taken place. This was done in an apparent effort to support one member’s motion that a procedural requirement had not been met.

Then, the commission voted that Octagon Partners, which owns the building, had not made a “good faith effort” to find a way to preserve the building, apparently dismissing six years of negotiation with potential tenants and buyers as insufficient.

The commission also nit-picked at other aspects of the application, such as whether the building has been advertised for sale for more than 30 days. While all of Missoula is aware the building has been for sale for years, this fact somehow escaped members of the commission.

Following more than four hours of such discussion, the commission members voted 6-0 to deny the permit. The chairman of the commission was absent, and four other members had recused themselves from voting.

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These are volunteers who have agreed to lend their time, talents and expertise in service to their city. They share an interest in historic preservation – and not necessarily legal procedure nor economic development. Historic preservation is an important aspect of Missoula that must be considered when weighing any new opportunities; that doesn’t mean it should be prized to the exclusion of all else.

The plain fact of the matter is that no one else is offering to buy the Missoula Mercantile building. The property owner has tried unsuccessfully for six years to make a deal with a variety of interests, none of whom could make the project pencil out. And now that they finally have, those with no skin in the game are doing all they can to obstruct it.

What happens if they are successful in preventing this deal? How many more years will the Merc they claim to love continue to sit empty and slowly degrading into an eyesore in the heart of Missoula’s downtown?

Enough’s enough. If preservation advocates are set on saving this building, let them pool their resources and make an offer. Barring that, step out of the way of those with the vision and the will to lead Missoula into the future. Hopefully this includes Missoula’s City Council members, who ought to ensure that the developers are treated with more decency than they have been shown by the commission.

And hopefully, Missoula’s city leaders will recognize that the Historic Preservation Commission’s biggest failure was in using a position of power for the purpose of obstructionism. That’s not what the commission’s mission is, and not what it should be allowed to do. The commission is “charged with establishing a local historic preservation program, (and) integrating historic preservation into local, state and federal planning and decision-making processes.”

Whether the commission exceeded the bounds of its authority in the Missoula Mercantile case, we will leave for city councilors to decide. Regardless, those bounds need to be severely reined in – and made explicit – before the next project lands before this commission.

Missoulian editorial board: Publisher Mark Heintzelman, Acting Editor Darrell Ehrlick, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen.

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