Town Pump got the green light Thursday night to move forward with a plan to expand its current gas station, casino, and store at the intersection of Montana and Platinum streets.
A shorthanded Butte-Silver Bow Zoning Board of Adjustment voted unanimously, 4-0, to grant the Butte-based company two variances that will allow the company to remove a strip of homes on the 500 block of South Idaho Street and build a more-than-10,000-square-foot casino and convenience store in their place.
The board normally has seven members, but Julie Jaksha and Michael Mulcahy were absent and Franki Weitzel had to abstain from voting because she is an employee of Town Pump.
That left Dave Wing, Joel Arnoldi, Todd Collins, and Tyler Shaffer to determine the project’s fate after hearing a mix of strong support for, vociferous objection to, and mixed feelings about the plan.
District 12 Commissioner Dan Callahan praised both Town Pump, which he lauded for doing “great things” for the community, and the project, which he said would enhance the Montana Street corridor that he says serves as “the gateway to Uptown and the gateway to Montana Tech.”
“I think it’s real exciting for Butte,” Callahan said.
But several residents of the affected block of Idaho Street said they felt left out of Town Pump’s planning process and expressed concern about how it would affect their neighborhood.
John Decker, who lives in one of the houses owned by Town Pump and slated for removal, said he and his wife first heard about the project through Facebook.
“I’m not necessarily against the application so much as there’s been no conversation between Town Pump and the residents of Idaho Street,” Decker said.
While he said he largely favored the idea of a new Town Pump, Decker also expressed concern about the prospect of eviction.
“Where am I supposed to be living?” he asked.
Marc Murphy, who lives across the street from what will become the rear of the new Town Pump building, expressed similar sentiments, saying he had come to the zoning board meeting “not as an opponent or a proponent (of the project) but as concerned property owner.” What Murphy wanted, he said, was a commitment from the company to “work with the individuals who will directly (be) impacted by this development.”
Leah Steinle, another homeowner on the west side of the 500 block of Idaho Street, became emotional as she talked about the plan and the effect it might have on her family.
Steinle said she could find “good things in this proposal,” such as Town Pump’s efforts to consider the historic “look and feel of the neighborhood” and the prospect of new jobs. But she also had a number of concerns.
For one thing, Steinle said, “looking at the back of the building is not the same as looking at those houses.”
For another, she said she would lose neighbors and have to accept in their place a casino, store, and gas station where anyone will be free to come and go. Noting that the current Town Pump attracts “criminal activity and vagrancy,” Steinle acknowledged it’s not the company’s job to stop crime but said that “it is Town Pump's job not to make it worse.”
“To be honest and upfront, I don’t think this is progress,” Steinle said.
Dan Sampson, Town’s Pump’s construction and development manager, responded to residents’ concerns about safety by saying the new site design would help matters by getting rid of the alley where there currently “are a lot of undesirables that hang out in the shadows” and reducing “the amount of spaces that you have for people to hang out and congregate as they do today.”
The proposal, Sampson argued, would help “revitalize” the area and provide “a better looking” entry to Uptown.
“We can do a lot for the neighborhood,” he said.
And the zoning board seemed to agree.
Collins, who said he grew up nearby on Idaho Street, praised the project, despite acknowledging some reservations about the casino.
“Do I like the gambling end of it? No,” Collins said. “But it’s a necessary evil. These people (at Town Pump) are masters at business. They know how to make this work. … And I would think that Town Pump corporation will satisfy any concerns.”
While lamenting what he described as the neighborhood’s decline over time, Collins said it was necessary to accept the tides of change.
“That’s the way it is, and that’s the way it happened,” he said. “There’s not enough money out here to keep all of our historic buildings. … I think it’s time to embrace some of these things that are coming our way.”
But Mitzi Rossillion, a member of the county’s Historic Preservation Commission, which has some oversight of the project, said she saw things differently.
Rossillion argued that the project would be “rending the historic fabric that is drawing new residents and business into Uptown” and working against “economic growth” that is fueled by Butte’s historic character. Noting she was “unconditionally opposed to this project,” Rossillion said the plan fits within a larger long-term trend of too much demolition in Uptown.
“When will it stop?” Rossillion asked. “With your vote on this variance request, it can stop here.”
After the votes had been cast, the variances granted, and the meeting concluded, Rossillion said she was “disappointed” due to the effect she said the proposal would have on the neighborhood but resolved to work to make it fit in with the neighborhood.
“Design cannot mitigate the impact, but because the board of adjustment has made its decision, it’s a welcome opportunity for the Historic Preservation Committee to consult with a new design,” Rossillion said.
The Historic Preservation Committee hold its next meeting Jan. 1.