The Helena City Commission has given its final approval to permanently close a section of street in the Montana State Capitol Complex, to allow the Montana Heritage Center construction project to go forward.
Commissioners voted unanimously Monday night to vacate the section of Sixth Avenue between Roberts and Sanders Streets. The Montana Department of Administration will have to move utility lines and pay a $165,571 fee before the vacation will be finalized.
The Heritage Center is a long-discussed expansion of the current Montana Historical Society building. It failed to receive authorization from the Montana Legislature for years, before lawmakers finally approved funding last year.
The original plan, as proposed in 2010, was to construct a separate building across Sixth Avenue from the current MHS location, then connect them with an underground tunnel. Now, though, the design team has chosen to build an addition onto the current building, which will require Sixth to be closed. Leaders say having separate locations would have raised safety concerns for people crossing the street, required more entrances to be secured, and provided a less cohesive experience for visitors.
Some residents in the surrounding neighborhood have opposed closing Sixth, saying it would disrupt an important east-west thoroughfare and redirect too much traffic onto residential streets.
The Department of Administration’s Russ Katherman, who chairs a committee overseeing Heritage Center construction, said Monday that they are working with neighbors on ways to reduce the impact, such as additional signage.
The design team has said they hope many of the redirected drivers will take Sanders Street to leave the Capitol Complex, instead of using a smaller east-west street. As part of the redevelopment of the former Capital Hill Mall site, leaders plan to extend Sanders across the mall property to Prospect Avenue – making it easier to get to the rest of Helena from there.
The Montana Department of Transportation is currently planning to remove the stoplight at Sanders and 11th Avenue. Both the Heritage Center design team and the mall site developers have asked whether that removal could be delayed in light of the planned changes to Sanders and to Sixth. However, Helena city engineer Ryan Leland said Monday that MDT is still planning to move forward with the change.
You can find more information about the Heritage Center project at montanamuseum.org.