On the Waterfront 

Endangered Spaces

Councilors give new life to a historic site

It's the last week of 1998, and the Missoula City Council seems to have caught the annual holiday bug that's currently afflicting workplaces not charged with providing essential city services, like police, fire, cable TV and retail shopping until 9 p.m. Agendas have miraculously shrunk to Lilliputian proportions, meetings are adjourned in a timely manner, and diligent efforts are being made to get what little business is at hand concluded before everyone's engine blocks freeze up in the parking lot.

OK, so it's the holiday season. I, for one, won't begrudge Council members their right to enjoy a few early Monday nights before the new year rolls around. After all, 1998 was a productive year, and January promises more than a few smoldering embers to flare up as debate and public comment begin on the proposed city-wide smoking ban.

In the meantime, the last two weeks in Council chambers have been about as exciting as watching lint gather: Routine rezoning requests, discussions on the sanding of icy streets and a reminder to shop owners that they're required by law to clear the snow off their sidewalks. In short, not exactly Pulitzer Prize-winning material for us journalists.

Nevertheless, last week saw the approval of one rezoning application worth noting. The Missoula Redevelopment Agency (MRA) has reached an agreement to develop a parcel of land just north of the Orange Street Bridge along Front Street. This project is currently referred to as the Fox Site Development, named after the old Fox Theater that stood on that location for some 30 years.

According to Chris Behan, project manager with the MRA, the Fox site sits on the north bank of the Clark Fork River and literally contains more than a few chunks of Missoula's history. From 1896 to 1946 that land (as well as a good stretch of the riverfront) served as the city's sewer and garbage dump. Still buried there are the remains of some of Missoula's earliest brick buildings, structures built around the turn of the century that burned down with some regularity.

In 1900 the site lay in the midst of Missoula's red light district, home to opium dens, saloons, brothels and other houses of ill repute. Missoula's poorest and most downtrodden lived there, including many of the Chinese workers who built the railroads that put Missoula on the map. Although the city once considered building a civic center on the property back in the 1920s, as late as 1964 it was still being used as a dump for raw sewage.

By 1950, the McCormick family who owned the property had sold out to 20th Century Fox, who opened one of the premiere movie houses in the region. According to Behan, the Fox Theater seated about 1,000 people, featured the latest in sound and film technology and was the first theater in Montana to offer air conditioning. It also contained impressive works of art deco that are still in storage at the Art Museum of Missoula.

During the 1970s, the property was leased to St. Patrick Hospital for their helipad. Before the pad was built, pilots used to land their helicopters right in the middle of West Broadway while the Missoula Fire Department-and sometimes the nurses from St. Patrick Hospital-would block off vehicle traffic.

By the late 1970s, much of Missoula's downtown had fallen into disrepair, the Fox Theater closed down and the building was subjected to frequent vandalism and fires. After asbestos was found around the pipes and in some of the roofing material, the building was torn down in 1990. Only two small walls were left standing, which later became part of the current Mustard Seed restaurant.

Appropriately enough, the MRA's mission is to eliminate urban blight and raise property values in the downtown area. According to Behan, this most recent partnership between government and private enterprise will be one of the largest in the MRA's 20-year history: a four-story, three-building office complex that will provide 120,000 square feet of office and street-level retail space. It will feature a 250-space parking garage on the roof, a small outdoor inverted amphitheater, a skywalk and a glass atrium. The project also includes designs for improved sidewalks and riverfront trail access along the north bank.

Something to keep in mind as this project moves forward: Be prepared for this section of Missoula to become a real motorist's headache for a year or two. Construction on the Fox site office complex is expected to coincide with the new Orange Street Bridge, and the old St. Patrick building on West Broadway coming down. All three projects lay within a quarter mile of one another.

Nevertheless, this $15 million project is expected to generate between $275,000 and $365,000 annually in taxes for the City of Missoula. The MRA's investment is not expected to exceed $1.5 million (a figure Behan calls "a worst nightmare" scenario) and will likely pay for itself within four to five years.

As Mayor Mike Kadas put it after the Council's unanimous 10-0 vote: "Good work."


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