As downtown housing moves upscale, who will determine the character of Missoula’s urban core?
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photo by Sarah Daisy Lindmark
Rick Wishcamper (left) and Justin Metcalf of Rocky Mountain Development Group became the owners of the Wilma Theater in early October. Since then they’ve evicted most of the building’s tenants and have sold the apartments as condos priced between $80,000 and $500,000.
As a college student with a 15-credit schedule, two jobs, and a spot on the Advisory Committee for Missoula’s impending zoning overhaul, Jamee Greer already has plenty to do. Added to that stress, he now needs to find a place to live, because he’s been evicted from his apartment above the Wilma Theatre so the units can be sold as condominiums.
“I know people who have apartments where toilets back up and they’re full of mold,” he says. Being forced into that kind of situation when he had no complaints about his room at the Wilma alarmed him. “When I first got the notice I panicked,” he says.
But Greer seemed to luck out. Near the time his eviction notice arrived, a friend of his bought a duplex and needed a tenant. Greer had a moment of relief, but only a moment. Days before moving in, property inspectors derailed Greer’s plans when they discovered mold in the ceiling of his new apartment, just like the horror stories he had heard from friends who rent. The setback inspired Greer to remain focused on getting Missoulians to talk about the issue of affordable housing and the plight of people like his neighbors in the Wilma who need new apartments. Fast.
“I keep hearing rumors from people like ‘Oh an Olive Garden is going to move in to the basement [of the Wilma]!’ And I’m like, we shouldn’t be talking about Olive Garden, or writing letters to the editor about the theater, but be talking about the people living in those 26 apartments and where they are going to live,” Greer says.
Greer lived for over a year in apartment 702 at the Wilma, which will sell for about $100,000, far more than he can afford despite holding two jobs.
“I thought I’d live in the same apartment through college. I liked it there,” he says. The Wilma endeared Greer to Missoula when he first arrived in 2004. “When I first moved here Fahrenheit 9/11 was playing, and I remember being amazed that there was this kind of place in Montana. It was just the coolest thing,” he says. Then, he got to live there—even better, he says. The mystique of the building, complete with rumors that it was filled with either ghosts, ex-cons, or both, gave the Wilma a uniqueness Greer found very appealing.
Greer doesn’t oppose developing luxury apartments or condos in downtown Missoula. Even if their cost puts them out of reach for normal people, he hasn’t concluded that condos are evil. But he remains unconvinced Missoula should be building so many.
“I once told [a reporter] who interviewed me when I was working at Butterfly Herbs when Starbucks came to town that it was all part of this ‘Spokane-ification’ of Missoula,” he says. “I wonder if it’s really in line with the core values of Missoula—is this what we want?”
Greer himself retaliated against the eviction by planning a party in his apartment with the theme, “Gentrification blows, but it doesn’t have to suck.”
“What else would you call it?” he asks.
Columbia University in Urban Studies professor Lance Freeman, who has written extensively about gentrification, describes it as the displacement of people from an area because they can no longer afford housing. Commonly gentrification enhances the tax base by increasing property values and attracting owners, but Freeman says removing people can drastically change the character of a neighborhood.
“If an area was primarily lower class and now its upper class, that will change things such as the cost of products, and what type of businesses are in the area,” he says.
Only two of the Wilma’s 26 renters purchased their apartments. The rest of the residents must move and face a challenging rental environment.
“It’s a landlord’s market,” says Missoula Housing Authority Director Lorie Davidson. “Landlords can charge as high as they want, and people have to pay it.”
According to Davidson, Missoula has a 1 percent rental vacancy rate, making it extremely difficult for anybody to find a moderately priced apartment, because so few are available.
The Wilma conversion has taken 26 units away from the rental market. And there are more condo projects in the works, with unit prices ranging between $75,000 and $300,000.
The Cottonwoods, a group of 100 condos at Grant Creek Village, were once apartments that now sell for $120,000 to $130,000. The soon to be completed Dearborn Avenue condominiums next to Southgate Mall will likely sell for between $132,900 and $295,500. Closer to downtown, the Creekside Inn on Madison St. features former motel rooms now selling for about $75,000. And the Uptown Flats built in the former Orange Street Inn has 42 condo units available for about $160,000 each.
Missoula Redevelopment Agency Director Ellen Buchanan thinks the conversion of the Wilma apartments to condos will benefit downtown Missoula—at least to a certain extent—but she hesitates to call the process “gentrification.”
“There’s an inordinate amount [of low income housing downtown].…Missoula has a conscience about these things,” Buchanan says, calling attention to the income-qualified Palace Apartments, the affordably-priced Clark Fork Commons development, and high-density rentals near Kiwanis Park.
From Buchanon’s perspective, Missoula is immune to gentrification because of the economics involved in the process, which require wealthy people to push out the poor. “We’re not going to be like Boulder [Colo.] We don’t have a Denver where people are making money,” she says.
Buchanan believes the changing housing market will drive some people from downtown; however, her concern lies more with the businesses.
“When you have more owners in an area, property taxes move up. I think we need to look at what that will do with businesses,” she says. “I don’t want to see a downtown without a Stocks or a Top Hat.”
Buchanan also sees the benefits of residential ownership in the area. “When you have people actually owning property, that’s always a good thing,” she says. “When I first moved here [four years ago] downtown had made dramatic improvements commercially, but not at all residentially.”
The newly created Urban Renewal District Five, which includes the area between the Wilma and Madison Street, and Main Street to the middle of the Clark Fork River, will profit from the new condos, Buchanan says. The more taxes collected, she explains, the more money will be available to address issues of blight in the area.
To get the residential density necessary to create abundant urban housing opportunities and avoid sprawl, Buchanan thinks development should go higher—as in
“If you can’t build your urban core up, where can you?” she asks. Higher density means more units, Buchanon explains, which in theory lead to more options for residents at all income levels.
The director of the Missoula Office of Planning and Grants (OPG), Roger Millar, agrees with Buchanan that Missoula needs to develop taller buildings. “That’s how you get a vibrant downtown with people from all economic groups, and I think that’s the direction we’re heading,” he says. “We’re not going to build these huge skyscrapers, but we could have six and eight story buildings.”
Millar says building larger residential buildings may become easier after the city completes a two-year process of rewriting the zoning ordinance. “Right now it takes a building permit to put in a six story office building, but it takes a year of maneuvering to get permission to build a residential building that same height,” he says.
For Millar, the real problem downtown comes from a lack of vision. “Downtown really doesn’t have a focus,” he says. “The goal is in the next 12-24 months to create an exciting vision for the area…there’s a real concern with gentrification when you look at what people can afford.”
But if Missoula doesn’t want condos, Millar says, they have a funny way of showing it. “I think you look at the sales of some of these places and you see that the market wants them,” he says.
A guy like Rick Wishcamper doesn’t project the swaggering image of a successful businessman. He’s lanky and slightly nervous when he speaks, but he has found success in the business world.
He and his business partner, Justin Metcalf, say they have made a reasonable amount of money through their company Rocky Mountain Development Group—enough to finance purchasing the Wilma, which listed at $4.25 million. They say they’re motivated by more than just profit, they want to give something to Missoula.
“I was standing up in the balcony [of the Wilma] during Widespread Panic and I could see all of the people dancing and enjoying themselves, and it made me really happy,” Wishcamper says.
Metcalf feels a special sentiment for the building as well. He says he first saw the Wilma when he was 14 years old on a trip from visiting his family in Darby.
“I just fell in love with the building when I saw it, and so owning it is, like, the coolest feeling,” he says smiling. “We really want to respect the history and integrity of the building.”
Neither man expects the theater to be a huge money making machine right away. They’re running it with that eventual goal in mind, but first they want to return the landmark building to its former glory, adding to the public restrooms, improving the wiring, and completely updating the backstage area.
But the theater changes have little to do with the moods of the residents above. Wishcamper knows the duo made some enemies with the condo plan, especially with the prices, which work out to roughly $265 per square foot. A condo association fee will add $132 a month to the cost of the new property, funding maintenance of common areas people share, like hallways and stairwells, and a security team that will monitor the building twice nightly.
“Of course that costs more than the average house,” Wishcamper says, “But we’re providing people an opportunity to live in a historic building in downtown.”
According to Wishcamper it took only one hour for all of the Wilma’s units to be reserved by potential buyers, who needed to put down five percent of the purchase price to secure their own piece of the historic building. Wishcamper says calls poured in from as far away as North Carolina.
“People were really excited,” he says. “We were swamped with calls from people who wanted to buy our condos.”
Wishcamper says he and Metcalf did their best to accommodate the existing tenants, initially informing them about the condo plan in July, and then again in early October when the developers took ownership of the building. “We made sure they had at least 30 days,” Metcalf says.
Despite the rush to reserve the condos, only a few people have closed on their units. One of them is Poverello Center Executive Director Ellie Hill. Hill says she wanted the condo because she likes being within walking distance of her job, and wants to have a place she can call her own and do with as she pleases. “I also think that Rick and Justin are doing such a great thing with wanting to revitalize that building. I just wanted to be a part of that,” she says.
Hill, who sits on the Missoula Historic Preservation Commission, says residential ownership of the Wilma will be better for the building because owners tend to treat property with more care.
However, she says the change of ownership, and the conversion from apartments to condos, wasn’t the smoothest transition.
Hill says her neighbors’ reaction to the 30-day eviction notice was universally negative. “Anger is an understatement,” she says.
Another potential condo conversion project lies across the Higgins Avenue bridge at the Montagne, a building part-owner Ken Duce prefers to call by its historical name, the Penwell Building. Eventually he plans on retiring there, but not now. It’s too small, and too crowded, and too much in need of repair, he says.
“I’m a slum lord,” Duce says without a hint of irony. “I’m not proud of it…I can’t do anything to that building right now, and it needs to be renovated.”
Duce plans to thoroughly remodel the building, but says the lot’s current non-residential zoning (the apartments exist only because they existed prior to the regulations) prohibits him from doing so. While renovations remain in the planning stages, Duce says condos are possible.
“That’s something that will be handled later once we know what we can do with the building,” he says.
Another property he owns near downtown, a house at 515 Hartman, will also change once Duce can get past zoning restrictions.
Plans for the Hartman project have waxed and waned over the last two years, wavering from a six-condo project, to a two-condo project, and now back to six again. But Duce has yet to move forward because of problems he has encountered with the zoning ordinance.
“Getting anyone to agree on what a zoning rule means is near impossible,” he says. “Zoning rules are a lot like the Bible, you can show anyone a passage and they’ll take what they want from it.”
OPG’s Millar says it is crucial that Missoula rewrite the zoning ordinance. Though the city has amended the ordinance several times, it has not been rewritten since 1978.
“Our zoning ordinance is incredibly bad,” he says. “The way the ordinance is written today, two intelligent and “well intentioned people could look at it and draw two completely different conclusions.”
That’s why the City Council Plat, Annexation and Zoning Committee started a campaign in September to completely overhaul the outdated zoning, creating an advisory board to represent all interested local parties, such as developers and real estate agents. The advisory board includes evicted Wilma resident Greer as a representative of the Associated Students of the University of Montana. Greer wants to make sure the zoning regulations promote desirable housing for everyone.
“We have people in this town with master’s degrees who are making burritos for a living,” he says. “You’ve got like 30 people in the Wilma, and 30 people in the [Penwell], where do they all go when they’re evicted?”
Presumably, the evictees vie for one of the 1 percent of available rentals.
Just over a year ago, Mike Ellis and several investors purchased the Orange Street Inn. “We bought it, we gutted it…we rebuilt everything,” he says. “We didn’t even leave the parking lot, that’s all new asphalt.”
Now the 80-room hotel has morphed into a 42-unit condominium building, with each unit costing around $160,000.
That’s a bargain in a housing market where the average dwelling runs at $206,000, according to Steve Simpson, the realtor handling the condos. He says most homes in Missoula costing $160,000 are “fixer-uppers,” or nearly condemned. “The cost of land is so high that getting down to that price usually means the house needs work.”
Ellis says the Flats represent more affordable housing, and also a chance for a different lifestyle. He says the condos won’t work for families, but provide an attractive opportunity for singles and people who love downtown.
Ultimately, market forces will determine the character of the town, Ellis says.
“Not everybody wants to own, and not everybody wants to rent. I think people need to have more options on both sides for this to really be a healthy, vibrant community,” Ellis says. “Downtown won’t be for everybody.”
For many residents of the Wilma, that unwelcome reality came as a terrible surprise. John Dunkum, like his Wilma neighbor Greer, couldn’t afford to buy his former apartment and its panoramic perspective on the Clark Fork River and Caras Park.
“It’s a nice view. At first I didn’t realize how lucky I was,” Dunkum told the Independent days before moving out of apartment 502. “I have a friend who grew up in St. Ignatius and I’ve always thought that that view in the Mission Mountains would have been great to grow up in. And he tells me, ‘A view isn’t everything.’ But for me it is.”
Dunkum reacted angrily to his eviction. When he moved into the unit two and a half years ago he knew it could sell at any moment. The lease was month-to-month. But the Wilma didn’t sell, and eventually he grew accustomed to the idea of living in the building indefinitely.
Then the eviction notice arrived.
“Justin [Metcalf] told me [the Wilma] was meant for people who’d grown up here, and done well for themselves and want to live in downtown,” says Dunkum, a Missoula native. “I was like, what the fuck?”
Now Dunkum, 46, plans to move in with his parents, again.
“I keep telling myself that it’s a good thing. My parents are older and I can help them out,” he says. “But it’s still living with my parents.”
Dunkum says he has enough money that he doesn’t need to work like most of his neighbors, and he doesn’t expect pity.
“This just has me…” he begins, but doesn’t finish. “I just didn’t think Missoula was a place like this…I didn’t think it was so geared toward this type of consumption,” he says. “For years when I was a kid they were like ‘How do we get people to move here?’ and now they’re like, ‘Oh no! Growth!’”
Since the 2000 federal census Missoula’s urban population has grown by 8.3 percent, the U.S. Census Bureau reports. The population growth puts enormous pressure on the housing market, creating a headache for both renters and owners and intensifying the debate about affordable housing.
According to the census, the total income for a two-person household in Missoula averages about $42,000, while the Missoula Organization of Realtors puts the median home price at $206,850, and the median condo price at $260,000.
Speaking at the recent Real Estate and Development in the Northern Rockies conference, OPG’s Millar said that cities can avoid gentrification by requiring developers to include affordable units in new developments.
“If you want to come down here and do some development, something residential, that’s great, but there has to be some affordability to it,” he said.
The city of Missoula could provide incentives for developers, but first there has to be a plan for the city and downtown, which doesn’t exist today. “If we figure out how many people we want in an area we can plan ahead, and make sure a system is in place for that kind of development,” Millar says.
Until a vision emerges, market forces will continue to exert pressure without clear direction or predictable consequences.
While displaced people like Dunkum and Greer lucked out and found satisfactory living arrangements through family or friends, others may not catch the same breaks.
“I was so fortunate, and lucky,” Greer says. He just wonders, and hopes others will care as well, whether his neighbors in the Wilma, and in buildings like the Penwell, will have some place to go.