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Downtown Missoula condo proposal decision postponed again

Posted: 6:26 PM, Jan 08, 2020
Updated: 2020-01-09 10:27:13-05

MISSOULA — The developers behind a condominium project in downtown Missoula countered a number of misconceptions around their proposal on Wednesday, from the cost of the units to fears over traffic.

While it didn’t appease critics, members of the City Council remained more undecided.

After a marathon meeting, they held the project over for further discussion and will consider placing a number of conditions upon the proposal, if they vote to approve it in the coming weeks.

Among the conditions, the developers may be required to contribute to the cost of relocating several homes on the property in an amount up to $60,000, and transplant native grasses to another location.

Topping the list, however, the city could ask the developers to dedicate as much as 20% of all for-sale units within the project as affordable housing, or set aside a number of units for voucher holders.

“Deed restrictions are a legal tool used to ensure that homes remain affordable in perpetuity,” said Eran Pehan, director of the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development. “Deed restrictions would be placed on those homes at the point of sale. Those homes would be restricted to serve a specific income target, or they’d be capped at inflation to ensure they remain affordable.”

Papaw LLC and Cade LLC are asking the city to vacate right of way along South Fourth Street East and rezone the parcel to accommodate the project, which includes 48 housing units and meets a number of goals included in the city’s growth policy and Downtown Master Plan.

Like all recent housing projects, the proposal has gained its share of supporters and opponents.

The later group, which has proven outspoken in recent weeks, fears losing what it sees as history and neighborhood character, and many in its ranks have a stated distrust over the development team.

“Any time you give up public land to a private entity, it deserves scrutiny, and that’s why we’re here,” said Jeff Gardner, who lives in an apartment in one of the homes slated for removal. “I think zoning is the one tool you as a body has to control this. I’m emphatically against this. Make these people play within the rules already established.”

Yet advocates believe current city zoning restricts the ability of area developers to meet the city’s growing need for housing, especially in the urban core.

Supporters said the condo project and others like it are needed to boost Missoula’s housing stock across a variety of incomes.

“This will increase the opportunity for home choice, home owners and rental opportunity, and it adds to the richness and diversity of the neighborhood,” said Nick Kaufman of WGM Group, which represents the developers. “The street vacation allows for added homes.”

Kaufman also said the proposal gels with the vision included the city’s growth policy, its housing policy and its downtown master plan.

The project increases the number of housing units on the property, and it would offer choices across a range of incomes.

Roughly 75 percent of the units would be sold as condominiums and the rest as apartments. Kaufman said 40 people are currently on the wait list, including 34 buyers from Montana.

“We have a vision for the property, and it’s to provide housing downtown for a diverse population, not for the wealthy, and not for the out of state,” he said. “We have occupants who want the amenities of downtown without having to drive downtown.”

Opponents of the project have decried the loss of what some see as the local history attached to homes, which date back to the Milwaukee Railroad.

It remains one of the project’s more contentious issues.

Emily Scherrer, the city’s historic preservation officer, said the homes are not individually listed on the national historic register and aren’t subject to the city’s preservation ordinance.

Rather, she said, they collectively contribute to the historic district.

To address the issue, conditions placed upon the developers would require them to contribute roughly $10,000 for the removal of each structure, so long as a buyer can be found. If a buyer cannot be found by April, the developers must deconstruct the homes following preservation standards.

“The city is willing to provide land for an interim location if the contractor doesn’t have a place to put them,” said Scherrer. “There have been two interested parties so far, so we’re working with partners as to the feasibility of this, and we’ve had consultants on site who analyzed the feasibly of whether they are able to be moved, and they are.”