Kind of a big deal 

Behind-the-scenes moves give Riverfront Triangle new life

During a Missoula City Council committee meeting last week, Councilman Alex Taft asked why local lawmakers should approve the Hotel Fox Partners' request for more time to complete plans for a major project at Orange and Front streets inlight of the developers' apparent lack of progress.

"You've had this project for four years," Taft said. "You're not moving. Why should we give this to you again?"

Taft's question came as council deliberated the partners' request for an 18-month extension on an agreement that has given them the exclusive right to develop the 1.87 acres of city-owned land since 2011. While there's been no visible change to the land, Hotel Fox Partners has significantly enhanced their vision for the prime piece of property along the Clark Fork's north bank.

The group unveiled to council an ambitious $150 million plan that's four times larger both in cost and size than what was first proposed four years ago. The new Riverfront Triangle site would encompass 7 acres, or roughly three city blocks, and feature an approximately 29,000-square-foot conference center, two hotels, two restaurants and 200 "market-rate" rentals. Fifty condominiums and 85,000 square feet of retail and office space would dot the site.

When responding to Taft's question, Fox principal partner Pat Corrick noted the appearance of inactivity is misleading. A significant amount of work has occurred behind the scenes. "From our perspective, a lot has been happening," Corrick said.

Missoula Mayor John Engen bolstered Corrick's claim. Engen said the partners scrapped their initial plan at the city's behest to begin exploring the feasibility of a larger development. "We have constantly been pushing for the next thing—the next better thing," Engen said.

Aiming to satisfy the city, the partners have been working to acquire more land. They bought one parcel on the southwest corner of Orange and Front streets and negotiated with Providence Health and Services, the owner of St. Patrick Hospital, an agreement to purchase additional parcels adjacent to the Clark Fork. To date, the partners have invested $500,000 into the Riverfront Triangle project, Corrick said.

click to enlarge Hotel Fox Partners recently announced a new $150 million plan for the long-dormant Riverfront Triangle site at the corner of Orange and Front streets. The group expanded its original 1.87-acre proposal into one that encompasses 7 acres, or roughly three city blocks along the north side of the Clark Fork. - IMAGE COURTESY OF HOTEL FOX PARTNERS
  • Image Courtesy of Hotel Fox Partners
  • Hotel Fox Partners recently announced a new $150 million plan for the long-dormant Riverfront Triangle site at the corner of Orange and Front streets. The group expanded its original 1.87-acre proposal into one that encompasses 7 acres, or roughly three city blocks along the north side of the Clark Fork.

In an interview after last week's meeting, Corrick says he feels good about his group's ability to complete the expanded project. He acknowledges, however, certain variables that don't necessarily fall under developer control could impact the project. "We're not counting our chickens, as they say, at this point," he says.

For instance, Corrick and his team will begin due diligence on the St. Patrick properties in the coming weeks. Two of the St. Patrick properties and the one already purchased by Fox formerly served as gas stations, meaning some environmental cleanup may be required. "Underground tanks can create some cleanup issues," Corrick says. "But they're not extreme."

Assuming no significant problems arise, the Providence deal is slated to close for an undisclosed amount next year.

In addition to environmental concerns, funding constitutes another variable. The current capital lending market is strong, Corrick says. Barring unforeseen shifts, the developers expect to secure financing in phases throughout an anticipated eight-year construction period.

Another task will be to negotiate a deal with the city for its 1.87 acres. As Missoula City Councilman Jason Wiener notes, that's a conversation that has yet to occur. Wiener says also that he'd like more information about how much the developers will—seek in financial support from the city. In 2008, Missoula established the Riverfront Triangle Urban Renewal District to encourage investment in a swath of land that includes the Fox site. URDs capture district tax revenue and use it to fund demolition and infrastructure.

"All of that calculation needs to be a lot clearer to me before I feel confident," Wiener says.

Following last week's committee presentation, council expressed excitement about the project during its regular June 8 meeting and unanimously agreed to give the partners an 18-month extension. As for Taft, he says his initial concerns have been addressed.

"I was satisfied with their answer," he says.

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