Downtown bar to annex street, causing vibrancy

The Thomas Meagher Bar in downtown Missoula

The Thomas Meagher Bar in downtown Missoula

As an ersatz Irish person, I like an ersatz Irish bar. But there are some lines even the Hibernian must not cross, and the distinction between public and private property is one of them. You can’t just give public assets to private businesses—that’s fascism, bro. I quote the Missoulian:

The Thomas Meagher Bar unveiled plans last month to build an outdoor dining patio on West Pine Street, a move the city supports in concept as it works to build a vibrant downtown atmosphere.

Two things are misleading about that sentence. First, the TMB “unveiled” its plans by submitting them to the mayor and his policy advisory team, making an end run around city council and other channels of public approval. Second, the “city supports” TMB’s plan in the sense that the mayor likes it, but the parking commission and several members of the city council do not.

This is a big deal, because the bar’s plan to build an outdoor dining patio is to fence off the sidewalk and pave over the on-street parking spaces in front of its business, which happens to be next to city council chambers. Essentially, the Thomas Meagher Bar proposes to annex the sidewalk and a substantial portion of the street. Besides giving publicly owned land to a privately owned bar, this plan would cost the city lost revenue from the meters and fines on those parking spaces.

All of that might be okay, if the TMB were offering to buy that strip of land or compensate the city for lost parking revenue. But it’s not. It’s asking the mayor to give it free real estate at taxpayer expense, without public comment, under an ordinance designed to make it easier for businesses to make minor changes to right-of-way like awnings or sandwich boards on the sidewalk. Annexing the street is not a minor change.

The amazing element of this plan is that the mayor supports it. Mike Haynes, the city’s Director of Development Services and a member of the mayor’s advisory team, told the Missoulian, “We looked at the proposal and basically, generally, supported the request based on it creating a more active and vibrant downtown.”

What does that mean, exactly? I fail to understand how an outdoor patio increases vibrancy enough to justify giving public property to a bar. Like the Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s recent plan to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to help private developers expand the already successful Southgate Mall, this looks less like responsible stewardship and more like the business community leveraging its influence on a friendly administration.

The fix is in on this one. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. You can also check out this single-source story about how everyone is going to love the Thomas Meagher Bar, which ran in the Missoulian two weeks after it opened. If you’re a small-time millionaire of the sort that can buy and remodel a bar, I urge you to do it in Missoula. Your resources can really go far here. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links, unless the mayor gives our house to Home Depot so it can vibrantly sell the lumber.

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  1. This is one of the rare times your rhetorical talent allows you to float an argument that would be obviously empty in someone else’s hand. You don’t have any evidence of malfeasance, but can allude to the value of democracy. You cannot point to a violation of procedure, but you can treat vibrancy with cynicism. You cannot articulate the cost of this proposal to The People, but you can threaten them with the dual specter of lost parking meter revenue and access to Council. You’re pretty sure something bad happening to the city, but your prediction seems mired in a prisoners’s mindset. The eatery is not taking from the defenseless city. There is no need to circle the wagons.

  2. Is this really a case of looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck? A fix? I can’t say yes, but I can’t say no.
    The issue, it seems to me, is that this request from the Meagher Bar–which I like and I patronize gladly–was all but green-lighted until the issue of the parking spaces came up. That issue–and it is a significant one that should not be given little or no consideration–called into question that the City has no suitable policy for dealing with this sort of request. There is no way to examine the implications of simply saying ‘yes’ as this proposal seemed to be getting.
    I like sidewalk dining as much as anyone, I suppose. But I also like walking unimpeded as a pedestrian when I am walking and not eating. There are some serious public questions here that the people, the walkers, in Downtown ought to be able to weigh in on, but absent a policy, this was headed to be a done deal.
    Another issue that Dan has raised is about who gets to use the public space and under what circumstances. In this case, six parking spaces serving Downtown (and City Council Chambers and the County Administrative building where the public’s business is transacted) were going to be permanently eliminated for use by the Meagher Bar to offer outside dining less than half the year. Not only lost revenue, but lost convenience for the poor people who have to come down and be heard by their government.
    Now, the public does not own the sidewalk. It is actually the Meagher Bar property owner’s property. When the lots the Meagher Bar is located on were platted, the then-property owner had to grant the City a public right-of-way. That means the property owner gave the public the right to cross their property in the conduct of the public’s affairs. The City was also given the right to improve the right-of-way with streets, sidewalks and other improvements and to essentially manage the right-of-way on behalf of the people of Missoula. By making the agreed upon improvements and managing the right of way, the property owner receives the not insignificant value of public access to his or her business.
    In granting this request to Meagher Bar, the City (through the Administration)was poised to give away something of benefit to the public for private purposes. More troubling, it is clear there was to be no consideration given the City in the form of fees or rent to use the right-of-way, which, it must be said, is also free of a property tax burden. A double benefit: rent-free, tax-free. Private use and private benefit attached to public inconvenience.
    It could be wrong to ascribe malevolence to this apparently aborted arrangement, perhaps. But if it had gone through, would the public’s trust in its officials been damaged? Without question. The cry of “what the heck were you thinking (or, drinking, because it is a bar)?” would have resounded off Mount Sentinel.
    No, I think it is good the City Council has apparently put the brakes on this and has taken it under its wing as a matter of policy-making which, after all, is its chief function in the government.

  3. Why would you NOT want to get rid of parking for noxious vehicles and add space for drinking and socializing, you crazy old crank???????? It’s absolutely worth it!
    If they’re literally “giving” this bar land to “annex” for “free” then I guess that’s a bit odd, when most cities would just allow a certain number of meters of public space in front of the bar to be used for outside dining/drinking. But I suspect those where rhetorical flourishes on your part. I didn’t click through to read the links, because, you know, I live in Barcelona now. With relatively very little parking and lots of public drinking space. So that’s for you all to deal with. I just dip in here to revel/complain.

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