Divisive Mercantile deconstruction project moving quickly

Posted by David J. SteeleMar 24, 20170 Comments

The partial demolition of the historic Missoula Mercantile building began in February and was already more than a third completed on March 3 — exactly a year after it was first proposed.

The project will retain the historic pharmacy portion of the building while allowing the remainder to be demolished and replaced with a $35-million Marriott hotel and retail center.

The redevelopment of the Mercantile was named “the city's most divisive business story of 2016” by the Missoulian, which highlighted some of the pitfalls of historic preservation work in real estate development.

What can you do with a vacant historical building?

Original construction of the Missoula Mercantile, often called “the Merc,” began in the 1880s. The corner building on downtown's Front and Higgins in Missoula was a commercial hub of the region and earned a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. However, as of last March it was vacant and an extensive search for tenants had shown that the building was in dire need of rehabbing. According to the developer, that rehab simply wasn't cost-effective.

Preservationists appealed to the city to reject the development plan for what they considered a cultural treasure. The Historic Preservation Commission voted down the developer's permit — but the city attorney accused for of its members of bias. The council overruled the Commission's decision after convincing the developer to save the pharmacy portion of the building.

Among accusations and ad hominem attacks, a group called Preserve Historic Missoula sued to overturn the city council. Missoula County District Court judge Robert “Dusty” Deschamps upheld the city council's partial demolition permit, however, and the preservationists have agreed not to appeal his ruling in exchange for an agreement not to hold them responsible for court costs, which might have been ordered in a case like this.

Interestingly, more of the building than just the pharmacy will be retained, in a way. Home ReSource, a local nonprofit reseller of building materials, is handling the demolition. According to the project demolition manager, “hundreds of thousands” of board feet of timber removed from the building will be saved and put up for resale at the Home ReSource store on Russell Street.

“It will go into a lot of residential and commercial projects around the area,” said the project demolition manager. “These materials have been important to the community for a long time, and now they'll be used in a different way.”