BILLINGS — After a lengthy public hearing Monday night, the Billings City Council approved a special review that will allow the expansion of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd at 1108 24th St. W.
The council also OK'd four documents paving the way for construction of the Empire Parking Garage on Montana Avenue. Final drawings of the garage were presented to the council before the vote Monday night.
Good Shepherd plans to demolish a 12,000-square-foot building south of its sanctuary and replace it with a 23,000-square-foot structure that will house offices, preschool and nursery areas, Sunday school classrooms, storage and meeting space and a choir room.
A 47-space parking lot would replace the existing building because the new structure will be north side of the sanctuary.
Six neighbors, including former City Councilman Dick Clark, spoke during the public hearing. Though most of them did not outright oppose the church's plans, all said there were problems that still needed to be addressed.
They said they were worried about privacy, because the new building would be so tall (39 feet) and so close to the alley and about safety, mainly traffic safety.
Residents had problems with the way cars would exit the new parking lot onto Lewis Avenue, with bulb-outs at Lewis and 24th that were created for pedestrian safety but impeded traffic flow, and with use of the parking lots by kids "cruising" 24th Street late into the evening.
Church supporters said they had safety concerns, too, the main one being the need to get preschoolers out of an aging basement and into first- and second-story classrooms.
Councilman Ed Ulledalen moved to delay the decision for a month, giving the city, the church and neighbors a chance to find some solutions, but his motion died on a 6-2 vote. Only Councilwoman Becky Bird joined him in voting "yes," and Angela Cimmino, Brent Cromley and Ken Crouch were absent.
Council members opposed to the delay said most of the neighbors' concerns had to do with traffic problems, for which the city, not the church, should seek solutions. They said the city could proceed with that process while allowing the church to go ahead with its expansion. The special review was granted on a 6-2 vote.
The council unanimously approved four separate documents dealing with ownership arrangements and development plans for the parking garage on the 2700 block of Montana. The main one sets up a unit, or condominium, ownership of the garage.
The property was sold to the city by the owners of the Northern Hotel and Walkers Grill, both of which intend to purchase parking spaces in the new structure. Under the agreement up for approval Monday, the city would have ownership of 54.4 percent of the garage, the Northern would have 31 percent and Walkers 5.3 percent.
The remaining 9.2 percent would be owned by the owners of six to eight retail spaces that will be built on the ground floor of the garage. The city is financing the garage with $12 million in tax increment bonds.
Assistant City Administrator Bruce McCandless said the documents will be signed Tuesday, demolition of the existing Northern garage will start Feb. 15 and construction of the new garage will begin in March.
The council also voted to recommend funding for seven sidewalk and trail projects totaling $917,984. That recommendation goes to the local Policy Coordinating Committee, which then forwards a recommendation to the state Department of Transportation.