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Loft apartments top renovation
Randy Hafer, of High Plains Architects, and a group of investors will refurbish the former Colborn warehouse at the corner of Montana Avenue and South 27th Street. The building will become loft apartments and offices. The former Colburn School Supply warehouse at the corner of Montana Avenue and 27th Street will become loft apartments.

The first two-story loft apartments in Billings are planned as part of a renovation project on a four-story, 95-year-old building at Montana Avenue and North 27th Street.

This will be the eighth such project in and around downtown Billings for Randy Hafer, the owner of High Plains Architects.

Standing on the ground floor of the Oliver Building, looking out over traffic on 27th Street, Hafer said this was supposed to be his first project when he decided to get into the historic redevelopment business in 1998. At the time, the Oliver Building had been vacant more than a year, after its last tenant, the Colborn School Supply Co. warehouse, moved out.

Hafer missed a chance to buy the building then, but it changed hands several times before he was finally able to purchase it in March 2004. Now, with plans drawn up and financing in place, Hafer and a group of investors are ready to start renovating the building, probably by the end of this month.

He said the building is a redeveloper's dream. It is solidly built and, because it was constructed as a warehouse, has very little plumbing or heating and ventilation material to tear out. There's no asbestos, either, and no walls that have to be removed. And it's big.

"This was one of those Wal-Marts of its day," Hafer said, with 7,500 square feet on each of its four floors and the same number in the basement.

His plan is to have offices on the second floor and two-story loft apartments on the third and fourth floors, both of which feature 13-foot-high ceilings and heavy solid-beam construction. Six apartments would have 1,600 square feet each, while a seventh would have about 800 feet.

Hafer said rents will be about $1,200 a month for the large apartments and about $700 for the smaller one. That would make them among the most expensive loft apartments in Billings, he said, "but they're also completely unique in our market today."

The project is making use of federal tax credits available for historic rehabilitation, and rules require that recipients of the tax credits own the building for at least five years. After that, Hafer said, the apartments and other spaces in the building could be sold as condos. He said two of his investors have already reserved apartments to buy them when they become available.

As for the ground floor, Hafer said the ideal use would be as a restaurant. That floor is set up about 5 feet above street level and has a number of nearly floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows. Hafer envisions a restaurant with tables along the Montana Avenue and 27th Street sides, with diners looking out over the passing scene. The basement will be suitable for retail or office space, he said.

The building is located on the southwest corner of Montana and 27th and was constructed in 1910. It originally housed the Oliver Chilled Plow Works, which distributed farm tractors and equipment. A fire in May 1930 caused $100,000 worth of damage and the top two floors had to be partially rebuilt.

It housed a variety of other businesses until 1958, when it was occupied by the Colborn School Supply Co. The company used the Oliver Building for its warehouse and sold school supplies out of a building a block west, at Montana and 28th Street. Colborn pulled out of both locations in 1996.

The Oliver Building is notable for one more thing: on the Montana Avenue side, a small "Glacier-to-Gulf" sign is stenciled on the wall. During the 1920s, the Oliver was a landmark on a network of roads that was designated by an association of businesses as the Glacier-to-Gulf Motorway, as in Gulf of Mexico to Glacier National Park.

Landmarks on the route were marked in guidebooks that were distributed by the association, and many of the landmarks were stenciled with the name of the route to help guide tourists. The sign on the Oliver Building might be the only one that survives in the area, according to a description of the building prepared for the Department of the Interior.

Meanwhile, Hafer said the market for downtown housing is booming. Since he developed 1 South Broadway in 2001, Hafer said, 60 to 70 rental units have been developed downtown. As far he knows, he said, only one of those units is vacant at the moment. Now, including other renovations and new-construction projects, about 70 units are for sale downtown.

What makes the Oliver Building exciting is the possibility of creating two-story loft apartments, Hafer said.

"This may be the only opportunity to even do this," he said.

Ed Kemmick can be reached at 657-1293 or ekemmick@billingsgazette.com.

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