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Missoula Merc pharmacy walls

The remaining portion of the Missoula Mercantile pharmacy building after the pharmacy's east wall collapsed in May.

Not a moment too soon, Missoula is tackling some important questions about how to balance booming development against the public interest in preserving historically important properties.

It’s fair to say this long-simmering discussion came to a boil two years ago with the proposal by a Bozeman-based developer to demolish most of the Missoula Mercantile building and build a five-story hotel in its place. But there are nearly a dozen other local historic buildings at risk. In fact, the Historic Preservation Commission keeps a list of the most at-risk sites, from the century-old Fort Missoula Post Hospital to the nearly 80-year-old Maintenance building on the Missoula County Fairgrounds.

So there’s a clear and pressing need for local leaders to establish better guidelines that will help avoid the sort of contention that arose with the Merc. However, it’s also important to ensure that any new policies are carefully aimed, and not overzealous in their goal of preserving some of Missoula’s most tangible historic touchstones.

Thankfully, Missoula’s City Council members appear to be taking a well-considered approach, as demonstrated by several constructive comments made last week concerning a working draft of the new permitting requirements. For starters, council member Michelle Cares specifically asked Historic Preservation Officer Emy Scherrer how the new regulations would have affected the Merc process had they been in place two years ago – and Scherrer had a ready answer.

The Merc, remember, remained empty for six years after Macy’s finally closed up shop, threatening to degrade a prime downtown block along Higgins Avenue and East Front Street into a graffiti- and garbage-attracting eyesore. This was despite the best attempts of city leaders to entice an appropriate buyer. When Andy Holloran of Bozeman announced that his real estate development company, HomeBase, intended to purchase the building and construct a $30 million custom Marriott hotel, the idea was met with both relief and disappointment.

Many had hoped that a use could be found for the building that would allow it to remain intact. Alas, no one could make those hopes pencil out.

Nevertheless, some proved unwilling to let go of the notion of preserving the building — including several members of the Historic Preservation Commission. As a body, they had only general requirements to work with, requirements that the current historic preservation officer described last week as “messy, unclear and challenging.”

After much delay, arguing over the definition of certain words and calls for more information from both the buyer and seller, the commission voted to deny the permit. That denial was overturned by the City Council, whose decision was swiftly challenged, then ultimately upheld. The final result of this two-year controversy is evident now in the new construction taking place at the site, where the bones of a new building are being filled in and two exterior walls of the former pharmacy are all that remain of the old Merc. The hotel is expected to open for business by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, reconstruction of a different sort has been taking place within the Historic Preservation Commission. After the City Council’s vote to approve the demolition permit, the historic preservation officer and several commission members left their positions. A new historic preservation officer was hired, and last year, the City Council voted — unanimously — to update the commission’s bylines and streamline it from 12 to nine members, including two alternates, among other changes.

Since it was formed in 1989, the commission has always been comprised of unpaid volunteers who, for obvious reasons, tended to have some degree of familiarity with and strong interest in historic preservation. Their entire purpose has always been to promote preservation – not business or development.

Rather, it’s the job of city officials to weigh sometimes-conflicting interests and find the best balance among them. Thus far, they had a great deal of flexibility to do so due to a lack of detailed guidelines for the demolition permitting process. The downside, of course, is that would-be developers have not had a clear idea of what’s needed to gain official approval.

The proposed regulations, which expand the requirements from a single page to 10, would certainly provide a great deal of clarity. Developers would know right from the start what would be expected from them, what they would not be allowed to do and how long the process might take, every step of the way. And apparently, it would take nine steps.

Councilor Julie Armstrong helpfully suggested last Wednesday that a flow chart, which would point to the next step after each action, be included for applicants. Councilor Cares showed keen attention to precision when she noted that the process should be called an initial and final application review, rather than a general “permit approval review.” And Bryan von Lossberg, who pointed out a possible inaccuracy and offered to help work on the document, likewise demonstrated that these regulations are getting a close and careful reading from city councilors.

With due respect for all the hard work that has gone into this document already, these are the kinds of small, proactive adjustments that help avoid major headaches down the road. And the revision process is not over yet.

The next round of review may take place as soon as July 11. Those with an interest in local history and historic buildings ought to pay close attention and follow their city representatives’ example in offering critical — yet constructive — suggestions.

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