Outside the box store 

Neighbors fight to keep Safeway at bay

North Missoula Community Development Corporation executive director Bob Oaks has coined a phrase he hopes Missoulians will rally around: “the battle of Broadway.” On one side of Oaks’ battle are the non-profit that Oaks heads and the Westside and Northside Neighborhood Councils, all fighting to transform the Westside strip of Broadway into an expansion of pedestrian-friendly downtown. On the other side of the field are St. Patrick Hospital and the downtown Safeway, whose plans for growth may strip the area of its neighborhood qualities.

“The concept that we want is one where Broadway is a street going through a neighborhood,” says Oaks. “But then right smack here will be a giant Safeway and parking lot in your face. It’s all in direct conflict with our neighborhood plan.”

St. Pat’s has been hoping to augment its hospital campus and the only direction it can go is west—onto the current location of Safeway. That means Safeway would have to move, which the supermarket is more than happy to do, because it’s been wanting to augment its own facility for the past few years.

Safeway now has designs on the nearly two-square-block parcel of land bordered by Pine Street to the north, Scott Street to the west, Broadway to the south and the Bitterroot Spur railroad tracks to the east—just west of its current location.

But it’s St. Pat’s, which has purchased the two square blocks from the city, and not Safeway that has applied for a re-zoning of the area to allow the store. Currently designated as a “city center” zone, the area doesn’t allow for a bigger Safeway.

Many Westside and Northside residents follow the shell game of land ownership and re-zoning just fine, and see the project for what they think it is: a chance for both St. Pat’s and Safeway to overtake the riverfront Broadway corridor, removing any hope of increased mixed-use development in the area and a connection to the Missoula trail systems. If allowed to move to the new location, the supermarket would jump from 34,000 square feet to just over 57,500 square feet. Its parking lot would double in size, making it the largest lot in the city center planning area. And a Safeway-owned gas station would squat at the far end of the parking lot.

“This isn’t going to be a neighborhood grocery, it’s going to be like the Reserve Street Wal-Mart,” says Oaks. “They’re going to sell things like patio furniture and have gas. They’re going to be drawing people from all over Missoula. This’ll be a destination store.”

Northside and Westside residents don’t like the sound of that, knowing that it means more shoppers, less housing (the St.Pat’s/Safeway plan eliminates 25 housing units) and lots more traffic.

Westside Neighborhood Association President John Couch sees the whole project as anti-pedestrian. And without options for pedestrians and bikes, more cars are a necessity, all of which de-emphasizes the neighborhood feel the Westside and the Northside councils have been trying to foster, says Couch.

“There’s a lot of people just trying to make this about the automobile,” he says. “Which is contrary to the whole neighborhood plan.”

Last week both neighborhood councils acted on their disapproval and voted against the St.Pat’s/Safeway plan.

“There was overwhelming, virtually 100 percent support from the neighbors at our Wednesday Dec. 4 meeting,” says Couch.

While the neighborhood councils may not carry as much firepower as St. Pat’s and Safeway, Oaks says that the Missoula Office of Planning and Grants [OPG] has become a “one of our best allies.” Earlier in the project, Safeway representatives gave assurances that they would work with the city on design, use, and architectural issues, but OPG has found that Safeway isn’t showing much flexibility. In early November, OPG sent a letter to St. Pat’s representatives regarding the revised application for the project.

“Save for the fact that this proposal keeps a Safeway store in the neighborhood,” wrote OPG associate planner Dale McCormick, “it fails in nearly all other respects to comply with the applicable goals, objectives and development guides for the site and areas as expressed in the Joint Northside/Westside Neighborhood plan.”

The Northside/Westside Neighborhood Plan is a document drafted by local residents devoted to perpetuating, re-creating and further promoting the area’s historic neighborhoods and developing a community for working-class Missoulians. The plan was adopted as part of the city’s comprehensive plan and thus gives residents, and OPG, some leverage, which McCormick exercises when he concludes that St. Pat’s should anticipate an OPG finding of failure to comply with the comprehensive neighborhood plan.

But it’s not up to OPG to decide what is done with the new Safeway. The agency can only make recommendations to the planning board, which in turn makes recommendations to city council. Council has full discretion to override recommendations.

While Oaks and Couch admit that St. Pat’s and Safeway couldn’t have come this far without city council support, they don’t think the battle is over. They plan on having the community show its unified opposition at January planning board and city council meetings.

“What amazed me when I moved into the neighborhood,” says Couch, “was the foresight and the dedication that the residents have.”

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