Standing in one of the handful of finished apartments in what is now the Eastside Brick building, the incongruity of it all can be unavoidable. The dwellings in the development – located in the old Kalispell general hospital between Fifth and Sixth Avenues East and between Seventh and Eighth Streets East – are truly urban. Exposed concrete beams and vents, community lounges lit through glass bricks, massive steel fire doors reborn as room dividers, white subway tile in the bathroom: All would be commonplace in lower Manhattan or Seattle. But a look out the window at the leafy treetops of downtown and the snow-dusted Swan Mountains confirm that this project exists in Kalispell.
After years in the works, Eastside Brick opens its doors to its first residents in October. And while Kalispell has been, as of late, a city of new subdivisions and proliferating box stores, Eastside Brick’s development represents a different kind of growth potentially catching on across the region and the state. Last Tuesday night the Libby School Board approved Eric Berry, the co-developer and design manager for Eastside Brick, to purchase the Libby High School and remodel it into a similar project. Berry has received inquiries to renovate buildings in Havre and Butte.
Berry moved to Kalispell from Seattle with his two daughters to develop Eastside Brick. “Out here, it’s really different,” Berry said about much of Kalispell’s development, which typically consists of building something new from the ground up, rather than focusing on “something old, that can be made better.”
“These guys have done stuff more progressively,” said Scott Lampshire, who owns the Wellness Resource Center across the street from the project. “Development can happen in the older parts of Kalispell instead of sprawling out, which is happening right now.”
Eastside Brick consists of 20 residential apartments in the top two floors of the old hospital, which also served as the county courthouse for 30 years. The condos range from small studios to three-bedroom units with in-law suites. A unit with 415 square feet costs about $89,000, and a larger one with 1,788 square feet goes for roughly $298,000, according to Vince Padilla, one of Berry’s partners. All 20 units have been sold out for years.
The ground floor of the building will be professional space with some live-work studios for artists and the “lower level” – developers are reluctant to call it the basement – will be four live/work spaces with high windows. Berry offered the units to a range of artists including photographers, sketch artists and painters, with the intention of making the building a place that fosters creativity, like art spaces that exist in many of Seattle’s older buildings. But he set the cost for the studios low enough that artists would not be priced out of the building, as has also occurred in hip neighborhoods of Seattle.
“You get this group of eclectic people and all of a sudden cool things are coming out of there,” said Berry. “I don’t want this just to be something that feels faddish, I want this to be a functioning artist community.” He anticipates developing an artist-in-residency program and is toying with the notion of building a communal dark room that photographers can sign up to use at different times.
Although Berry received his education in electromechanic drafting and plastics engineering, he describes himself as a fabricator, not a developer. He clearly has oversight over the project’s design, deciding on everything from stairway railings to the countertops – some of which he makes himself out of African Bubinga scrap wood that he purchases in Seattle by way of a Greek veneer company. He tries to salvage or use as many of the old hospital’s unique features as he can, delicately removing the bright green glass tiles of the two operating rooms for use elsewhere and leaving intact a nearby wall of glass medicine cabinets as part of the office space.
“You can actually be a little bit frugal and get something more unique,” Berry said.
Eastside Brick is also environmentally sound, with recycled materials used wherever possible and electrical systems designed to accommodate solar and geothermal power sources. Berry developed an irrigation system, burying a series of wells around the perimeter of the block to collect and store rainwater and runoff. In the dead of summer, he said, the building can run its sprinklers without using any city water.
Part of Eastside Brick consists of a separate structure going up in the east parking lot that will be a coffee house (for which the developers are still seeking an entrepreneur to run) and Berry envisions possibly starting a neighborhood “movie night,” showing films against the back of the building.
Wide stairways and hallways left nearly all of the hospital’s old walls intact, while sacrificing some square footage in the apartments. Many of the dwellings – as is common in urban spaces – feel small by Montana standards, but efficiently use every inch of space with lofted beds, sliding doors to divide rooms and high closet rods in some of the studios.
There have been a few setbacks. Construction is about five months behind schedule due to some difficulties that required changing financial backers. Because the project is so different for Kalispell, Berry had to be particularly diligent in explaining his vision of the development to city officials. “It’s like reinventing the wheel around here,” he remarked. But once the developers adequately explained their vision, Berry said, the city has been forthright in granting approval and aiding progress wherever possible. While some neighbors opposed Eastside Brick for the abrupt population boost it will give to the neighborhood, Berry characterized most neighbors’ reactions to the project as generally positive.
“This is such an incredible project,” said John Faustino, who lives across the street from Eastside Brick and is doing part-time construction work on the building.
“The actual utilization of something so nostalgic, so historic,” Faustino added. “They’re making the place something that it needed to be.”
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