The (G)Reed at Missoula’s Hip Strip

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This is what the death of Missoula looks like. A Borg Death Cube called “The Reed

If Missoula’s affordable housing woes and homelessness crises weren’t already ridiculous, the approaching avalanche of luxury condos cascading into the Garden City now places this once-quiet mountain town firmly within the theater of the absurd.

WGM’s Nick Kaufman appeared again before the Missoula City Council this Monday on behalf of Cole Bergquist, Cade LLC and Pupaw LLC, to make the case for their 4th Street gentrification project: The Reed.

The plan involves displacing Missoula locals and tearing down several  century-old structures and uprooting a native plant garden to construct towering eyesores of glass and steel erected for the enjoyment of anyone who can afford a $500,000 condominium.

Since there was no way to play within existing rules to make this elaborate plan work, Kaufman has asked the Council to simply alter the rules. And he’s pulled out all the stops: WGM have asked the City to throw out the University historic character overlay, they asked to vacate city Right-of-Way at 4th and Ronald to the developers, and they’ve asked for a unique “spot rezone” to include commercial applications.

And on top of it all, Missoula’s locals are told we should celebrate because this development that’s being crammed down our throat will help us “go green” — because tower blocks can be deemed “environmentally friendly” somehow.

Kaufman’s presentations insult the Missoula community’s intelligence with hopelessly optimistic projections, half-truths and outright lies. But the most egregious misstep was attempting to sneak commercial “spot zoning” past the Missoula community, hoping nobody would notice this metaphorical elephant in the living room that is poised to shit on all of our faces.

Let’s start with their traffic projections. WGM’s engineers told us with a straight face that this 40+ condo development with 75 underground parking spaces will only contribute 13 vehicles leaving in the morning at 13 leaving at night. It seems bewildering they expected us to believe this nonsense. But even more bewildering, it appears many of our public officials drank WGM’s Kool-AId long ago, as they seem to sincerely believe such nonsense.

Moving on to the Council’s condition that the existing historical structures be moved at the developer’s expense. WGM generously offered to provide up to $12,500 per building to be moved, however the language of the condition repeatedly states that they’ll provide these funds for moving the buildings only if “designated feasible for relocation“. Given that these are century-old structures, said feasibility is decidedly ludicrous. The cost of moving such structures would be several times the amount proposed.

Next, the outright lies that WGM presented to the council.

Kaufman stood before the City claiming that his group had offered financial compensation to the residents his development threatens to displace. This claim was already suspect, as one such resident, Jeff Gardner, appeared in The Missoulian the week prior, revealing that he’d received no such offer of compensation.

In response to this glaring inconsistency, Nick Kaufman claimed, “We had outreach to our tenants and we notified the tenants and offered relocation assistance. Apparently we missed one of those tenants. We apologize for that.”

Kaufman told us that “apparently we missed one of those tenants” and promised to rectify that oversight. However, over the course of the evening, no less than four of the current residents appeared before the Council and revealed that none of them had received the relocation funds WGM promised.

As of this writing, none of that has changed. Though that hasn’t stopped the Bergquist fib factory from manufacturing the next obvious excuse, that he offered to assist them in locating a new place, if needed, but that “no FINANCIAL assistance was ever offered or discussed with any of the tenants.” But what other meaningful assistance could there possibly be, Cole, if not financial? Selling them one of the other luxurious properties you’ve been tasked to represent by your lofty real estate firm?

But the lies didn’t end there.

After Councilwoman Stacie Anderson proposed an amendment prohibiting commercial applications as part of this controversial rezone, the Mayor asked Kaufman directly if the developer was “intending to do commercial” with this project. Nick Kaufman said, “No. The developer is not intending to do commercial.” 

But when the prospect of losing the commercial aspect to this rezone began taking shape as the council discussed the feasibility of Anderson’s amendment, Kaufman doubled back, saying they had indeed planned to use commercial, but only as a “fallback”, saying that without such a fallback, perhaps they would need to reconsider the 20% affordable housing requirement, which he alleged had already severely undermined their profit margin. 

It was further suggested that the commercial implications may be interrelated with the so-called affordability threshold, thus weaponizing the buzzword of “affordable housing” to justify commercial “spot zoning”and unapologetic gentrification.

Heather Harp opposed Anderson’s amendment, saying, “ I worry that based upon the document that was uploaded today … that if the developer can’t get to 20% and is going to lose money, that we will get zero affordable housing, and that they will walk away from the project. it’s a possibility. Which is something none of us in this room want. So I just caution that.”

Mrs. Harp’s bias for WGM may stem from her husband’s role as Principal Engineer for WGM until two years ago, when he became part of Missoula’s highly lucrative revolving-door economics. Today he’s Missoula’s interim director of Development Services which he stepped up to from his post as director of Missoula’s public works.

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Nick Kaufman of WGM Group

Nick Kaufman lied to our faces.

If anyone on the Missoula City Council should choose to take something personally, let it be that inconvenient fact.

But they shouldn’t get angry when half the chamber laughs at them for claiming “4 units of affordable housing is better than zero” when seven currently exist.

They shouldn’t throw up their hands claiming “the plan is far from perfect” without making any attempt to secure a better deal for the people of Missoula.

They shouldn’t cry crocodile tears about isolated statements regarding parallels between poverty and crime — statements couched within hours of thoughtful public comment that covered a much wider scope of issues.

And whatever they do, they definitely shouldn’t then decry such statements as “classist”. Punching down is bad enough, but punching down on your own kind just makes you look stupid.

There may be a problem with classism in Missoula’s city council chambers, but that problem doesn’t originate with the working-class residents of the city who attend council meetings to try to defend their way of life.

No.

It comes from the developer-class who attempt to weaponize the City Council as their instrument in the Class War they wage against working people. A class war worsened by the brazen cronyism of revolving-door politics; the infiltration of public offices by organizations who stand to benefit from deregulation.

The Council were elected by said working people to represent their interests; not to sell them out to developers, or to railroad them in defense of developers, or patronize them about their apparent lack of understanding of economic theories. Our representatives can either become public servants operating the levers of power or acquiesce as tools of the developer class. But they cannot do both.


WHAT IS SPOT ZONING AND IS IT LEGAL?

One defense of this controversial and potentially illegal commercial spot zone hinged on convincing average Missoulians that this neighborhood is part of the Hip Strip’s commercial throughway. But, as revealed by vociferous public comment, that area is not cherished by locals as a potential shopping district, but as part of the Kim Williams River Trail.

The commercial implications of Kaufman’s rezone request suggests that The Reed was likely imagined as another monument to gentrification like that exemplified by South Park’s SoDoSoPa. Indeed, such developments have become increasingly unpopular as their negative side effects have been duly noted. Severe gentrification can usually be charted as a wave that started with an unprecedented development that promised to “re-imagine” a small section of the city. These developments are presented as innocuous, but bring about detrimental and irreversible effects.

This is why the Missoula community responded to this development the way they did. For should the “spot zone” for The Reed be determined legal, Missoula henceforth opens a giant Pandora’s Box of increasingly controversial developments all over town based on that precedent.

The Reed‘s new zoning covers exactly one building, granting that single building the right to be twice as tall as the maximum allowed height for any of its neighbors. And that height discrepancy will be locked-in forever, unless and until zoning for neighboring properties is likewise altered.

This begs the question: What’s the point of zoning then? If such discrete exceptions are allowed, why do it at all?

Such occurrences are known as “spot zoning”; a controversial practice which is illegal in some circumstances. According to the Montana Supreme Court, there is a 3-pronged legality test, including public good.

legal discussion

From Missoula City Attorney Jim Nugent’s 2011 legal opinion from 2011 regarding the legality of “spot zoning”

Three conditions are cited that, if violated, make the “spot zoning” illegal. And all three seem applicable to The Reed:

  1.  the proposed use is significantly different from the prevailing use in the area;

  2.  the area in which the requested use is to apply is rather small from the perspective of concern with the number of separate landowners benefited from the proposed change;

  3.  the change is special legislation designed to benefit only one or a few landowners at the expense of the surrounding landowners or the general public

And from the MSU Extension office’s, How To Spot a Spotzone:

One illegal form of rezoning is spot zoning…To be considered a spot zone, the property, in most cases, must meet the following four criteria:

  • The area is small compared to districts surrounding the parcel in question.

  • The new district allows land uses inconsistent with those allowed in the vicinity.

  • The spot zone would confer a special benefit on the individual property owner not commonly enjoyed by the owners of similar property.

  • The existence of the spot zone conflicts with the policies in the text of the master plan and the future land use map.

From where most average citizens stand, those three out of the four of those conditions all seem to establish a slam dunk for this case. But then again we’re citizens, not lawyers. Lawyers possess that special-bullshit-barrister magic that enables them look at those words and see a completely different meaning from the common English speaker.

For example, in the four legal precedents cited by Nugent, all four cases appear to be situations where the court determined spot zoning could be legal. The following reasoning seems particularly egregious:

“Boland v. City of Great Falls, 275 Mont. 128; 910 P.2d 890; 1996 Mont. LEXIS 17; (1996), the Supreme Court held that no illegal spot zoning occurred and indicated that the zoning change would benefit the adjacent property owners whose property values would tend to increase from the project development; and that there would be benefit to more landowners than the individuals whose property was being zoned and therefore the zoning was not in the nature of special legislation designed to benefit only one landowner”

This brings us to the City Council’s requirement that their development include at least 20% affordable housing units. Because of the implications of “spot zoning” it was essential that WGM be able to prove some kind of “public good” to cover the potentiality for legal problems moving forward. Ironically, the linchpin for the entire proposal to build luxury condominiums, ended up being “affordable housing”.

As previously observed, this constitutes a net loss of affordable housing units, since the existing buildings already provide seven units of affordable housing. The council’s position of course has been to allege those seven units are under threat, maintaining that four permanent units is better than zero.

The absurd icing on this turd cake is of course that Zero units of affordable housing could be exactly what they get. The language of the proposal states that the developers include an affordable housing condition in either the for sale condo units OR the for rent apartment units. At one point the city council changed that language in the proposal to make the OR an AND, meaning that both the for sale units and the rental units would have to include a certain percentage of affordable housing, but at the request of the developer who complained of the effect on profit margins, the City Council removed that change, returning the OR.

Why is this important? Because the mechanisms the city has to enforce the affordable housing are very different for the for purchase units versus the for rent units. For sale units would be what is referred to as “deed restricted”, which is a term the City Council uses repeatedly in avowing their support for the proposal. Deed Restricted units would in fact be permanent affordable housing. They would be sold to qualified residents at a rate much lower than the other condo units, and the lower price would be maintained as these units were sold and resold in the housing market.

The for rent units however are what is referred to as “voucher preferenced”, which means that qualified residents could receive a housing voucher every month which is good for $800 dollars of their rent. They give that voucher to the property owner and pay the difference. The property owner would make the same amount of money off each unit as they would renting to someone paying the full price. They’re still making just as much money, but a person who couldn’t afford these apartments can get in. The property owner is just partially being paid by the government, who of course pays for it by collecting our tax dollars. Essentially we are subsidizing these apartments.

Now this doesn’t sound altogether unacceptable, the Deed Restricted option is clearly preferable, but the Voucher Preference doesn’t sound too bad, until you realize that the “voucher preference” is only in place for 60 days before the property owner can abandon it and rent to anyone. This means that if the property owner decides for any reason that they don’t want to rent to the voucher holding citizens, all they have to do is let the apartment sit empty for 60 days, then those units of affordable housing the Council fought so hard to secure are gone forever. So much for “permanent, structural affordable housing”.

WGM is attempting to hold the city to ransom, promising to mitigate the damage to public good if the City gives them massive concessions in the form of a drastic and unpopular rezone, as well as surrendering city Right-of-Way.

But when it comes to bullying locals who speak out against gentrification, these developers really pulled out all the stops. As reported by Cameron Evans this week:

“Members of the public reiterated concerns that the project would disrupt the historic nature of the neighborhood and obstruct their view of the river. Last week, those concerns manifested in an image created by an anonymous resident that circulated Facebook. It featured a large black box purportedly representing the proposed structure to illustrate the scale of the project.

“Bergquist, however, said the image was inaccurate and responded with another rendering that he commissioned from an architectural firm.”

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Missoulian WGM Condo picture

Original (above) posted to facebook. Bergquist’s response (below) as printed by The Missoulian

The keen observer will notice by Mount Sentinel’s relative size in the background of each image, that Bergquist’s rebuttal image is zoomed way out, thus severely minimizing what essentially amounts to validation of the original image; more boxy modernist architecture blighting Missoula’s otherwise pristine skyline.

Cameron Evans continues, illustrating the sleazy lengths these developers will go to bully anyone who threatens their precious profits:

At Monday’s City Council meeting, Mary LaPorte shared a letter that she said her friend, Shirley Juhl, received from Datsopoulos MacDonald & Lind on January 24, saying they represent developers Cade, LLC and Pupaw, LLC.

LaPorte read the letter to the council:

It has recently come to our attention that you have posted on Facebook a rendering of what the Fourth Street condominium project would look like from the Higgins Bridge … I’m writing for the purposes of placing you on formal legal notice that this rendering presents false and misleading information apparently designed to wrongly influence the public’s perception of the project.

LaPorte further commented that, “This is a letter from a lawyer threatening a citizen for speaking out against a project. That is so against the values of our community. This is not who we are as Missoula.”

Millionaires and billionaire are constantly crowing that any marginal impact on their profit due to regulation will ruin them; that any concession to public good or common decency will destroy their profit margin and cripple their ability to contribute to a thriving economy. We’re made to believe that those who have the most in our society are constantly teetering on the edge of total financial disaster should the society they’ve thrived upon ask for them to give anything back, however minuscule. We’re told to believe that property rights are sacrosanct above public good or community responsibility, reminiscent of the fracking industry’s defensive tactics in the face of criticisms about public good.

Even if it were indeed true that WGM’s profit margins are razor thin and that any concession of public good will somehow deem their project untenable, what does that really mean?

It means they’re not entrepreneurs at all.

If the only way they can turn a reasonable profit on this project is on the backs of massive public giveaways, then they’re not the drivers of progress and innovation so lauded by wide-eyed acolytes of trickle-down economics like the mayor and his hand picked successor.

If poverty is the deadliest form of violence, then all contributors to poverty are accomplices. And if these economic amateurs can only get their way by resorting to threats to sue little old ladies and further worsen the city’s housing crisis if their demands are not met, then they are no less than economic terrorists. And it should not be the policy of the City of Missoula to negotiate with such swine.

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Gabrielle Lafayette is the executive producer for the Outer Limits Radio Show. This cache of thought is presented free of charge as a service and gift to you. May our eternal vigilance help liberate all beings from the smoke-and-mirrors deceptions of the Samsaric Panopticon.

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