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Thursday, June 1, 2017


New life for Lincoln School?

Cynthia Manning doesn’t like to look at the defunct Lincoln School near her Rattlesnake Valley neighborhood. A half-dozen years ago, she and others fought to preserve it from demolition or residential development in hopes that one of Missoula’s “most endangered” historic places could become a civic hub again. Manning’s group put down several deposits but failed to meet the developer’s asking price, leaving them out the cash and with a vacant spot on Lolo Street. “It was a tough thing to swallow,” Manning says now. “I don’t drive by it because it makes me sad.”

Nevertheless, she agrees to meet there last Sunday because a new future for Lincoln School is in the works. The Missoula Federal Credit Union assumed ownership of the building last year in lieu of foreclosure, then solicited proposals from groups looking to purchase it. The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Missoula signed a buy-sell agreement earlier this month. 

The recent turn of events has Manning and other longtime advocates cautiously optimistic about the site’s future. Suzanne Julin, president of Preserve Historic Missoula, says the building anchors the Rattlesnake to its past as “an emblem of the valley’s transition from a ranching area to an urban area.” She and Manning are thrilled the Unitarian group says it plans to keep the school’s character as a National Register of Historic Places site while offering the space for use by other community groups as well.

The Unitarian fellowship has met in a house on McLeod Avenue since forming in 1962 and is looking to expand. “Being a part of the Rattlesnake is exciting for us,” says board chair Rachel Nordhagen. “We really want to be part of our community.”

The sticking point, though, will be parking. The church must install 18 spots to obtain a conditional use permit from the city, credit union CEO Jack Lawson says. But since the last effort to revive it, the school’s former campus has become a triangular patchwork of family homes and undeveloped lots, only some of which are owned by the credit union. Parking isn’t allowed on adjacent streets.

Neighbor Phil Petrilli is concerned about shoehorning a parking lot into his tiny subdivision. Homeowners are also miffed they weren’t included in the credit union’s decision making, despite a formal entreaty. “They chose to work in the shadows and not let us property owners in on what was transpiring,” Petrilli writes in an email.

Lawson says his organization has been trying to make the best of a difficult situation. The city permit application will take a couple months to submit and a couple more for city council to review. In the meantime, the Unitarians want to work with neighbors to find a parking solution, Nordhagen says. They’re starting tonight at 6:30 p.m. with an ice cream social on the front lawn.

Stones cast at church's plan for Lincoln School
By Derek Brouwer

Selfies and superheroes were welcome at a recent Unitarian Universalist Fellowship service in the church's small University District house, where two dozen people gathered in the living room for an "intergenerational" service led by Sara Berndt and her young daughter, Jillian.

After pointing out the pro-selfie, pro-technology ground rules, Berndt cracked open the pages from a comic book called Ms. Marvel. The book chronicles the origin of Marvel's first Muslim heroine, a Pakistani-American teen named Kamala Khan. The hero, who is grappling with her cultural identity, sneaks out to a party, where a few peers make fun of her and one spikes her drink. Kahn's first test, after discovering her shapeshifting superpower, is to rescue one of the teasing partygoers from drowning. Berndt uses Ms. Marvel to explain a few of the church's principles, from finding one's inherent worth to extending compassion to others, regardless of their actions.

After the service, some members say they're trying to keep the latter in mind as they navigate an increasingly contentious effort to relocate the congregation to a dilapidated schoolhouse in the Rattlesnake.

"We're trying to just view them as people with their opinions, and we're not trying to be negative toward them at all," says Rachel Nordhagen, the church's chairwoman.

Nordhagen is referring to the homeowners who live next to Lincoln School on Lolo Street. The residents are vigorously opposing the church's proposal to buy and renovate the vacant building, which is considered one of the city's most endangered historic sites. In letters to the Missoula City Council, the neighbors use words like "abominable" and "egregious" to describe the plan and accuse the Unitarians and the Missoula Federal Credit Union of being "evasive and not necessarily forthright" in their planning documents. "Don't be fooled by their subterfuge," Phil and Patricia Petrilli wrote.

The attorney representing several of the neighbors, David B. Cotner of Datsopoulos, MacDonald & Lind, even quoted the church's own principles in a letter to its leadership, arguing the project would "ignore the worth and dignity of my clients and will ignore justice, equity and compassion in its relationships with my clients." On Nov. 30, the neighbors filed a lawsuit in Missoula County District Court against the church and the credit union to block the sale.

The suit marks yet another bitter turn in an ongoing effort among Rattlesnake residents to revitalize Lincoln School as a community space, an effort that has been complicated by a half-finished residential development. Neighbors point to protective covenants that limit the land's use to residential purposes, while the credit union, saddled with foreclosed properties, seeks to sell the school while honoring the civic function envisioned by its advocates.

It's an awkward fit. The church's plan calls for a parking lot that's separated from the school by two residences. And because the development was created using a streamlined city process that bypassed subdivision review, the homes are already tightly packed onto a small triangular plat. City council is scheduled to discuss the proposal Dec. 7; no sale can be completed without its approval.

In light of the opposition and lawsuit, church leaders recently wrote an op-ed for the Missoulian in which they candidly questioned whether or not to move forward. They asked community members invested in Lincoln School to speak up.

"We're just trying to do what's right for the community, and we hope others feel the same way," Nordhagen says.

[The Fellowship finally withdrew its offer.]

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