The Montana Historical Society unveiled an updated design for its more than $32 million addition and renovation during a digital open house Tuesday evening.
The former plan called for an underground tunnel connecting the existing building to a spacious addition to be built directly across Sixth Avenue to form the new Montana Heritage Center. The updated plan includes the removal of Sixth Avenue between Roberts and Sanders streets so the buildings can be adjoined above ground.
Administrator of the Montana Department of Architecture and Engineering Russ Katherman said the underground tunnel posed a negative impact to the overall visitor experience and an increase to the Montana Historical Society's operating expenses.
"The challenge has been trying to look at the whole project and determine how best to serve the historical society while keeping in mind the needs of the neighborhood," Katherman said.
The building committee hired an independent traffic engineer to study traffic flow at 11 intersection surrounding the site after closing off the one-block stretch of Sixth Avenue.
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Zack Graham is a civil engineer with Cushing Terrell, the company selected by the state to create the design plan, and Graham said during Tuesday's meeting that there was very little impact on traffic flow during the week the block of Sixth Avenue was closed for the study.
Graham said any minor increase in traffic would eventually be alleviated once the city reopens Sanders Street north of 11th Avenue.
According to Katherman, the plan was also vetted by Helena's City Engineer Ryan Leland and Fire Chief Ken Wood. While the city has yet to approve the plan, as it is still in the design phase, Leland and Wood believed it to be feasible from the standpoint of utilities and emergency response times.
The design team said during Tuesday's presentation that utilities, such as water and sewage lines, would have needed to be relocated in the former plan that called for a connecting tunnel below street level.
The new design also incorporates a Capitol-facing entry plaza with an indoor cafeteria and an outdoor patio.
The new addition is set to include a large gallery space and event center as well.
Katherman said the new features go a long way toward accomplishing the main goal of affording more space for the historical society's substantial amount of archival material that is typically relegated to storage.
The state has sent out a request for proposals on the project, and responses are due by April 30. Katherman said his department hopes to have a general contractor selected by June 1.
He also said some of the early stages of construction could be completed by the end of the year, including the general site preparations, removal of the houses on the property and relocation of maintenance facilities.
Additionally, Katherman said he hopes to have a new parking lot on site by the time the Montana Legislature convenes in 2021 to add temporary parking for those conducting business at the Capitol.
About 80 virtual attendees showed up for Tuesday's presentation, and Katherman said his team will continue collecting public input on the project.
"This is the people's museum. This is their heritage on display," he said. "We want to hear what people think. It's the only way we can confirm we're on the right track."
He said the team will conduct additional meetings and informational sessions and encouraged public participation.
The historical society launched a new website last week, montanamuseum.org, with the goal of "maximizing public input," according to Katherman.
Public comment for the design phase of the project will remain open until May 5.
A recording of Tuesday's presentation will also be posted on the website.