C.M. Russell Museum acquires property, exploring options for expansion

The C.M. Russell Museum is eyeing expansion to the north of its existing space, but is very much in the idea stage and no decisions have been made.

For years, the museum foundation has owned all of the properties across the street with the exception of 1221 5th Ave. N.

In the spring, the owners of that property indicated they were interested in selling and the museum purchased the property so it now owns the entire north side of 5th Avenue North between 12th and 13th streets.

With funding from the Great Falls Development Authority, the museum conducted an environmental site assessment earlier this years and determined none of the existing properties on the north side of the block were viable for museum use. The museum worked with NeighborWorks Great Falls to see if the homes could be stabilized and moved, but that option would have been cost prohibitive, according to museum space.

Return to Calgary is open at the Russell Museum through Sept. 30

Christina Horton, marketing and events manager for the Russell museum, said Habitat for Humanity ReStore staff will go through the properties and salvage everything they can before the houses are demolished.

CMRM North

Rendering of what the C.M. Russell campus would look like after the residential properties on the north side of 5th Avenue North are demolished and sod is laid. Courtesy C.M. Russell Musuem

Horton said the museum intends to save the mature trees and as much existing shrubbery as possible.

For the short-term, sod will be laid in the spring and benches and picnic tables will be added to make block primarily greenspace.

“The C.M. Russell Museum is a premiere cultural center in our community, Montana, and the American West. We are challenging ourselves with this new space to reimagine our campus in a way that ensures our facility reaches its full potential,” said executive director Thomas Figarelle. “While we cultivate those plans, the home of Charlie Russell will get a new backyard.”

Planning for the expansion is beginning this month with a Campus Master Plan Task Force, Horton said, which is co-chaired by the Russell’s board secretary and local resident Anne Martinex and Steve L’Heureux of L’Heureux Page Werner Architecture. The task force has 15 members comprised of museum board, staff and community members. They began meeting in October and Horton said they’ll draft a plan to be formally considered by the museum’s board in 2020.

L’Heureux was the architect on the museum’s last expansion that opened in 2001, Horton said.

The museum has submitted a letter of intent to the city’s planning and community development office covering a wide range of ideas, including rezoning the northside of the block to Public Lands and Institutions; potentially moving city utilities; extending parking agreements; and vacating the portion of 5th Avenue North that separates the existing museum campus from the new properties.

According to museum staff, city planning staff have been providing guidance on how to navigate through the public process to consider the proposed changes. Many of the changes would require City Commission approval and public hearings.

Horton said the museum is researching a product that reinforces the ground but looks like lawn and has grass that could be used so the new property could be greenspace but used as parking for major events if needed.

No decisions have been made, but Horton said the museum is exploring options for expanding the building since it could desperately use more storage space and they’d love to have more gallery space.

“Right now, it’s purely a what is possible discussion,” Horton said.

The museum is filed as a non-profit but still pays property taxes.

For 2019 alone, the Museum will pay about $14,000 in property tax. The additional properties as well as the prospective addition of 5th Avenue North, between 12th and 13th Streets will increase the taxable property the Museum covers annually, according to the museum.

The museum also owns the half lot on the northwest corner of 5th Avenue and 12th Street that is kitty-corner from the museum campus, but there are no plans for that property currently, Horton said.

The museum notified the neighbors, sent fliers, knocked on doors and is planning to attend the Neighborhood Council meeting for that area to update and involve the neighbors in the discussions for expansion.

“The museum prides itself on being a responsible friend to the community. We are already having great conversations with our neighbors and look forward to seeing them enjoy the green space,” Figarelle said.