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Developer Andy Holloran’s Black-Olive building, perhaps the most divisive development proposal to hit Bozeman in years, is at long last heading before Bozeman’s City Commission on Monday.

Since Holloran and his company, HomeBase Montana, first floated the Black-Olive concept last summer, it's become a lighting rod for debate over Bozeman’s growth. Now proposed as a five-story apartment building with enclosed parking and a coffee shop, it’s seen by supporters and opponents alike as a bellwether for the direction of the city’s development.

BABCOCK ST

BOZEMAN AVE

WILLSON AVE

TRACY AVE

BLACK AVE

OLIVE ST

Black-Olive site

Downtown (B-3)

zoning boundary

CURTISS ST

As Holloran his supporters see it, the commission denying Black-Olive or forcing major modifications will send a message that the city isn’t serious about building up instead of out, that its elected commissioners don't have the backbone to stand up for forward-thinking projects in the face of NIMBY opposition.

For opponents, though, many of them neighbors, Black-Olive has come to embody their fears for Bozeman's trajectory, its approval potentially beckoning a wave of oversized, overpriced development that chokes the charm out of their neighborhoods — making Holloran and his ilk hefty profits but pricing out bona fide Bozeman wage earners.

If there’s middle ground between those hardened positions, it’s in the details, the nitty gritty trade-offs between real estate economics, property rights and neighborhood preservation that the city tries to sort out with its voluminous development code.

Given that, four key parts of the Black-Olive decision face commissioners:

1. Mass and scale

While much of the concern over Black-Olive has focused on its size — five stories with a 62-foot rooftop and 68-foot maximum height — it does comply with the city’s numeric zoning code for height and scale.

The project site, on the southeast corner of Black and Olive — across Black from the city planning office — is zoned B-3 as part of the downtown commercial district. While the adjacent properties are currently one- and two-story homes, some of them included the South Tracy Historic District, they also share the B-3 designation, meaning the city’s existing requirements for buffering between commercial development and residential neighborhoods don’t apply.

Buildings in the B-3 district are limited to a height of 70 feet under current city code. The federal building kitty corner to the Black-Olive site, in comparison, is roughly 80 feet tall.

Even so, neighbors and members of the city’s design review board have argued the project is out of place under more subjective review criteria, which requires that the size and design of new buildings have “compatibility with… the immediate environment of the site and the adjacent neighborhoods.”

2. Parking

With the Black-Olive proposal including 56 apartments and only 37 on-site spaces in an interior garage, parking spillover has also been a key concern for neighbors, many of whom argue it should include a space or even two for each of its 72 bedrooms.

While the one-space-per-bedroom requirement is more-or-less the city’s rule-of-thumb in most of its zoning districts, its code allows lower standards, a single space per dwelling unit, in downtown. That relaxation is supposed to take into account the greater ease of walking and biking in the city core and encourage higher-density development.

Parking provision is a significant pain point for planners and developers looking to foster urban-style development like Bozeman’s beloved downtown. Requiring too much parking, they worry, drives up costs and forces a suburban-style development pattern like the big box stores on North 19th.

Holloran does meet the letter of his city parking requirements for Black-Olive but does it by pursuing a never-before-used code provision that gives parking spaces dedicated to a car-sharing program five-fold credit. With 33 standard spaces, four car-share spaces and another three spaces worth of on-street parking, the project has enough parking to technically comply.

Planning staff are asking commissioners to take a close look at the car-share component this coming Monday, determining whether it’s appropriate to grant the reduction. Their staff report says Holloran doesn’t yet have a finalized plan for managing Black-Olive's car-sharing operation, though he says he’s been talking to national companies like Zipcar.

Holloran also says he plans to make the building’s 33 non-car-share spaces available to tenants at additional cost, between $75 and $100 a month. That’s intended to provide an incentive for residents to use the car-sharing program in lieu of a personal vehicle but could end up encouraging car-owning residents to avoid on-site spaces in favor of on-street parking.

Picturing the change

On the left is a view of what the corner of Black Avenue and Olive Street looked like on March 31, 2017. On the right is a developer's December rendering of a building proposed for the corner.

Photograph by Rachel Leathe/Chronicle. Rendering by Johnson Nathan Strohe Architects.

3. Water, sewer and street capacity

The city has adequate water capacity to serve the building, planners say, and a traffic study commissioned by Holloran’s company indicates the project will have only minimal impact on downtown-area streets and intersections.

The traffic study, conducted by Billings-based engineering firm Marvin and Associates, estimated Black-Olive would produce 737 additional trips on an average weekday. Factoring in bike and pedestrian commuters, though, it concluded only about half those trips, equating to a peak volume of 37 trips an hour, would involve a motor vehicle.

Combining that estimate with traffic counts conducted in 2013 and 2016, the engineers concluded the project “would not have any appreciable impacts on traffic operations of the surrounding street system.” (Their study doesn’t include information on when or how their traffic counts were conducted.)

City engineers do say existing sewer lines along Olive Street and Bozeman Avenue need to be upgraded to 8-inch pipes before they have enough capacity to serve a project of Black-Olive’s size. If commissioners approve the project’s site plan, the city says it will require that expansion be completed before it issues a building permit.

4. Affordability

Holloran said in a March 27 letter to the city that Black-Olive rents will likely range from $1,000 for a studio to $2,000 for a two-bedroom apartment.

Some opponents have decried those rents as suitable for little beyond providing crash pads for the Yellowstone Club crowd. But with a third of a family's income devoted to housing, the units would be affordable for households making between $36,000 and $72,000 a year. That doesn't necessarily equate to a modest salary, but it is within typical pay ranges in better-compensated professional fields like technology, engineering and law.

Additionally, with the city facing near-zero vacancy rates and increasing rents, the proposed rates in Black-Olive aren’t necessarily much higher than what’s already typical for downtown. The leasing office for the Blackmore Apartments across Olive from the Black-Olive site said last November that it was then charging $1,050 a month for  one-bedroom units.

There is some evidence that adding supply to a tight housing market like Bozeman's — even at the higher end of the market — can help bring down rents, or at least slow their rise. For example, rents dropped for some classes of apartments in Washington, D.C., following a wave of new construction in 2013 and 2014, according to the Washington Post.

If Black-Olive is successful in attracting residents who can pass on car ownership thanks to the car-share, that also represents a substantial savings when it comes to the cost of living, Holloran points out.

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Eric Dietrich can be reached at 406-582-2628 or edietrich@dailychronicle.com. He is on Twitter at @eidietrich.

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