Death’s door 

Kalispell hospital gets new lease on life

When you first walk through the old Kalispell General Hospital, it’s hard to notice anything but the exposed pipes and wiring, piles of rubble filling whole rooms and broken windows punctured by pellet-sized holes. It looks like the final scene in an action film.

But when Eric Berry, one-third of the partnership that now owns the building, gives a tour, he projects an infectious vision of a new neighborhood anchor just east of Kalispell’s downtown onto the structure’s rough guts.

Eric and his partners, Vince Padilla and Dave Rickert, operating collectively as DEV Properties, plan to restore the old hospital, which they now call Eastside Brick, and turn it into a mixed-use development, with condos on the top floor, commercial businesses on the second, and eight live-in artist studios on the ground level.

The Kalispell General Hospital, built in 1912, served as hospital for about 60 years and as county courthouse for another 30 before being purchased from Flathead County by an earlier developer in 2002. The old hospital was nearly destroyed before becoming a canvas for DEV’s ideas.

Although never made official through the Planned Urban Development (PUD) process—which requires developers to outline their plans as a condition of approval by city council—plans included razing the structure and building high-density housing in its place.

But that developer met with resistance from the neighborhood.

According to Robyn Balcom, president of Eastside Kalispell Group (EKG), a neighborhood organization that formed to fight the project, the main problem was that the developer wanted high-density zoning without committing to a plan through a PUD.

“The way he spoke at city council meetings, he was like ‘I don’t care what the neighborhood thinks, it’s my building.’ Nobody wanted him as a neighbor,” she says.

Eventually, due to community resistance and other problems, the old hospital was again put up for sale.

Berry says he and his partners knew they wanted the old hospital after just one 45-minute walkthrough. They bought the building about a year ago.

Berry, who’s studied drafting and mechanical design and spent the last 15 years creating public artwork and custom wood and metal work for private clients, was to oversee the development of Eastside Brick.

Learning from the mistakes of the last would-be developer, Berry went straight to the community with his plans.

“They were wonderful at keeping us informed and getting our input and saying ‘What does the neighborhood really want,’” says Balcom. “That was greatly appreciated.”

EKG got behind Eastside Brick, but DEV also needed Kalispell’s planning department and city council on their side. Eastside Brick was substantially different from most of the developments slapped on clean-slate farmland that the city had been approving.

“For our community, it’s ahead of its time,” says Kalispell planning board member Tim Norton, who eventually became a proponent of Eastside Brick. “Over in Portland and Seattle, they have a lot of these…I don’t know what I’d call them, mixed-use buildings I guess?”

What helped secure final approval from the city, Norton says, was a downtown revitalization study commissioned by the city, which advised the city to encourage renovation of historic buildings, mixed-use development and local artists.

“[Eastside Brick] provides exactly what that study says,” Norton notes.

But there was still the business side of the equation—selling condos and renting office space in a building substantially different from the popular new strip developments north of Kalispell. DEV’s plan had been to launch a marketing campaign this month, but that necessity disappeared by January, when 60 percent of the high-end top-floor condos and the only two available artist’s condos were sold. The rest of the commercial and living space will be rentals.

The quick success suggests Berry and DEV tapped into a market other developers hadn’t seen.

Berry, who has family in Montana, had some prior personal knowledge of the valley going in—he and his business partners have been vacationing in the Flathead for 15 years. The only concrete fact Berry had that supported his vision was that there are 2,000 working artists living in the Flathead, according to a city study. That was enough to convince him his idea for an arts-centered mixed-use development could work.

To keep it arts-centered, Berry plans on having artists apply to a board, using their portfolios and references. This, he says, is not only allowed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but actively encouraged.

Behind the building, Berry stands over a crumbling concrete foundation where the boiler for the hospital used to be. Over this, Berry plans to build a coffee shop and glass blowing studio, where he hopes the community will gather to watch art being made.

Inside the main building, he envisions artists working and teaching classes in a foundry, a dark room, and paint and ceramics studios. There will also be space for resident artists to display their work and days when the public will be invited in for art walks.

Eastside Brick is expected to be complete in two years.

“I’ve always wanted to have a building like this,” Berry says. “These days, you could never afford to build this structure.”

He points out details like the terrazzo floors, which, he says, are an old, and now very expensive, way of making flooring from cement mixed with flecks of marble. They’ll last forever, he says, and with their colorful marble bits, they’re beautiful.

But community is what interests Berry most.

He, his family and his business partners all plan on being a part of this community—which is to say, they’ll be living at Eastside Brick as well.

Speaking of community, Berry reminisces about his neighborhood in Seattle, where once a week during the summers, neighborhood families would gather outside to watch films projected on the back of a nearby building.

Berry hopes to create a similar community, movie night and all, at Eastside Brick.

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