After six months of debate, City Council gives go-ahead to Mercantile deconstruction

mercantile hotel

By Martin Kidston

The Missoula City Council on Monday approved a partial demolition permit for the downtown Mercantile, following up on a similar vote last week by the Land Use and Planning Committee.

The vote puts to bed a contentious issue that has lingered for more than six months. Still, the $30 million downtown redevelopment project proposed by HomeBase is far from finalized and hinges on a number of contingencies regarding design and preservation.

HomeBase, the Montana developer, has spent the past six months seeking a permit to deconstruct the Mercantile before building a five-story branded hotel on the property. While the project has won the widespread support of downtown businesses, it has been largely panned by preservation advocates who have decried it as an historic travesty.

Ward 1 council member Heidi West agreed, casting the lone vote against the measure, just as she did last week. Ward 2 council member Harlan Wells abstained from voting, citing a conflict of interest, though he didn’t detail what that conflict contained.

The measure ultimately passed on a 10-1 vote.

“The only reason we’re here is because these are properties on the National Historic Register,” said West, who believes that HomeBase failed to make a good-faith effort to consult with the preservation community before launching its proposal. “Not requiring that in this case sets a poor precedent.”

However, the vast majority of the council disagreed with West. While the consultation process wasn’t perfect, they council has agreed, developers successfully met the legal requirements throughout the process, which began in March.

In Monday night’s final decision, the council also found that the Historic Preservation Commission erred by denying HomeBase a permit to deconstruct the Merc. The Land Use and Planning Committee reached the same conclusion last week.

“The evidence suggests that the Merc can’t be rehabilitated in a way that’s economically viable,” said Ward 2 council member Jordan Hess. “Any preservation steps that have been taken or may be taken are a result of negotiation, and we’ll continue that negotiation.”

In approving the deconstruction project, the city has placed a series of conditions upon HomeBase. Among them, the pharmacy portion of the Mercantile must be preserved and incorporated into the new hotel project.

The development agreement must also be approved by the city before the project moves forward. The agreement requires HomeBase to submit a list of salvageable materials. Any unused materials must be referred to the public or Home ReSource for reuse.

“There has been a tremendous effort by the people at this table and staff to make this process as thorough as possible,” said Ward 5 council member Julie Armstrong. “I wanted someone to come in and write a check for this thing. It didn’t happen. It didn’t happen over the past six years.”

Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley, who has chaired the Land Use and Planning Committee throughout the debate, said she rendered her decision “with a heavy heart.” At the same time, she said, the committee has spent more time reviewing and hearing the Mercantile issue than any other item in recent memory.

The issue has logged an estimated 40 hours before three bodies of local government, if not more.

“We have a developer who has altered his building many times and has agreed to work with the city, binding them to this design,” Bentley said. “We have one of the best hotels coming to downtown Missoula. With them will come tourists who could only before get a room on Reserve Street.”

Bentley said studies have shown that visitors spend three times more money in downtown Missoula than the locals do. Over the past six months, business advocates have described the project a boon to the downtown district and have overwhelmingly supported it, saying their livelihood depends upon a vibrant downtown district.

In contrast, preservation allies have described the Mercantile as irreplaceable, despite its current condition.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com