Is Safeway the right way? 

City mulls the prospect of a “big box” store downtown

Yet another symptom of Missoula’s inexorable growth is starting to rear its head, and the attractiveness of that visage is a matter of perspective. Roughly one year ago, two events occurred that have taken on a growing significance for the fate of one of the larger undeveloped areas in the expanded downtown area.

The first was the inclusion into the city’s oft-adjusted Missoula Urban Comprehensive Plan—the local bible for managed growth—of the Joint Northside/Westside Neighborhood Plan, a painstaking and complex document created by representatives of those neighborhoods. The second was the City Council’s decision to award exclusive negotiation rights for the soon-to-be-vacated city shops property on West Broadway to St. Patrick Hospital, which has entered into a strange-bedfellows relationship with Safeway.

At issue is the nearly two-square-block of land bordered by Pine Street to the north, Scott Street to the west, Broadway Street to the south and the Bitterroot Spur railroad tracks to the east. Currently inhabited by the city shops buildings and several housing units, the site was also the location of the Big Broadway building that was demolished with Missoula Redevelopment Agency (MRA) funds at the behest of St. Pats, which had already purchased the Big Broadway building and the housing units.

The city, citing a need for more space, has long desired to get out of the Broadway location for its maintenance shops, and initially looked at property on Mullan Road before settling on the current White Pine location north of the Scott Street bridge for its new maintenance complex. That left the future configuration of the Broadway site to be a test case for both the Comp Plan and the NS/WS Plan, given the area’s designation as part of the expanded downtown planning zone.

That’s when St. Pats stepped in. Already in the midst of a major renovation that saw last year’s demolition of its original building, St. Pats is now eyeballing the current Safeway location on West Broadway as an ideal future expansion zone for a planned “hospital campus” extension. Although Safeway is reputed to be content with its current location—City Council member Jim McGrath reports that the store is the highest performing unit in the food giant’s chain—St. Pats dangled the prospect of a new store site at the city shops location, ready for expansion, to entice Safeway into the deal. Safeway, interested in planting a “super-store” in a prime downtown location, is making a concerted effort to expand its prototype store size across the country and has agreed to join forces with the hospital.

In order to win approval from the City Council for the project, though, the Safeway/St. Pats partnership had to compete against a proposal, dubbed the Westside Portal Project, generated by an ad-hoc partnership of local developers Dick Clemow and Scott Clooney. The Westside Portal Project was created with a strict adherence to the mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly template set forth in the Comp Plan and laid out in further detail by the NS/WS Plan. It proposed a combination of mid- to high-level housing units for the site, along with commercial development ideas that included renovation plans for the historic shops building.

After a 5-5 deadlock vote from the Public Works Committee on the merits of the two proposals, the city assembled a review committee, consisting of city and MRA officials along with representatives from the Council. That committee approved the Westside Portal Project (which had bid $1,000 more than its competitor) over the St.Pats/Safeway project by a slim margin. Despite that approval, the Council selected the St.Pats/Safeway project, citing a host of reasons.

The first was a fear that Safeway, if not allowed to expand, would conceivably pick up and move out of the area entirely, taking a valuable community resource with them. The second was that St. Pats and Safeway, both large, known commodities with histories of financial stability, were safer bets in the long run, despite the Westside Portal backers’ demonstration of economic solvency.

A third and perhaps most intriguing combination of factors is the notion of St. Pats, a huge generator of both jobs and taxes, as an 800-pound gorilla that gets bananas whenever it requests them. St. Pats engaged in a carrot-and-stick maneuver with the city as well, implying that if it were allowed to expand into Safeway’s current location, it would most likely have no use for the “triangle” lot—bounded by Orange Street, west Main Street and Broadway—that the hospital owns. The city, according to the hospital, could then put any combination of residential and commercial uses to bear at that location.

While there is no concrete agreement between the city and St Pats for the triangle lot—which, by all accounts, should preclude that possible arrangement from being a factor in the decision-making process—MRA director Geoff Badenoch says that there’s nothing wrong with helping a proven institution like the hospital. “There something to be said for helping the city’s largest employer survive and prosper,” says Badenoch.

The St. Pats/Safeway project has hit some bumps in the road in the year since it was given the green light, however. Last week, the Office of Planning and Grants(OPG) issued a rare recommendation against the project as it had been proposed, citing a marked failure on the part of Safeway to come up with a plan for the expanded store that meets the conditions of the Comp and NS/WS Plans. The original plans called for a 57,500 square-foot, one-story building surrounded by a 283-space parking lot (nearly half again as big as the lot at the Holiday Inn-Parkside) and a corner gas kiosk. “As it was presented, it’s a completely inappropriate project for the location, right downtown in a redevelopment district where we’re trying to guide how that whole corridor should look and function,” says McGrath. “It’s disappointing to see them not respond to feedback from the community.” In the wake of OPG’s recommendation against them, the backers of the St. Pats/Safeway project have requested a 30-day withdrawal of the proposal to come up with a plan more to the OPG’s liking.

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