Lessons From the Safeway Saga

By Beacon Staff

After a good bit of gridlock and nitpicking, the Whitefish City Council finally approved Safeway’s expansion into the old Ben Franklin footprint. The process generated plenty of public interest and criticism from those who feel it is important that projects be approved in a timely manner, without dithering over details such as has happened here.

Reason one is that the clock is certainly ticking on Safeway’s $12-million-dollar budget, and Safeway isn’t about to build cheese with that kind of money. They want an attractive store all wrapped up and earning money by the time our Christmas skiers arrive to town.

Reason two is probably more important. I would suppose the Architectural Review Committee is trying to retain that “authentic Montana” flavor by micromanaging every detail. But doing so misses the point.

Safeway bragged to Council that they were going to use a “luxury” template they’d developed for a store they have in Boulder, Colo. Well, I lived in Colorado for a couple of stints, and let’s just say Boulder has a statewide, even national reputation for weirdness.

No kidding, but the last Boulderite I saw was wearing dreadlocks, a kilt and Army boots. Do any of us really want Whitefish to be anything like Boulder? I’d say we’d rather Whitefish be Whitefish, and Montana be Montana.

What is Montana? Well, that’s the question not asked.

In one of my past lives, I worked in commercial construction. A lot of the new commercial structures in town strike me as being contrived. I should know, I’ve helped build a few, thankfully elsewhere where I don’t have to look at them any more.

In Whitefish, they follow a “theme:” Earth-tone paint, dark metal roofing, heavy window framing, grandiose entranceways with big laminated beams bolted to steel plate connectors, and rock wainscoting belts around the ground floor. Throw in a couple giant logs de-barked and finished for columnar supports here and there in the slate-floored entranceway, and Viola! Noovoe Whitefish Bauhaus!

I mean, I could understand stone wainscoting if Whitefish was in a floodplain, and if the stonework was actually part of the foundation and not just a veneer clipped to conventional framing.

The big beams and logs? While we’ve got lots of them around here, we haven’t cut anything that big in ages without years of litigation. Never mind the lathering public hissy fit when Dennis Rasmussen slicked off his trailer park – I almost wish those trees could go into Safeway’s entrance arches, with bronze plaques explaining their history.
The bottom line is that recent construction in Whitefish has become formulaic, predictable, and boring.

Would Whitefish have a Frank Lloyd Wright building if this Council and this review committee had been around back in the day? Would we have the Depot to model the town upon if someone had been concerned about “neighborhood character” at the time?

And where is this leading?

Well, Leavenworth, Wash., is a place with tons of “neighborhood character,” founded as a railroad helper station on the original 1893 Great Northern main line through the Cascades. While the railroad changed to the Chumstick alignment in 1929, U.S. 2 was built up the old GN grade through the lovely Tumwater canyon.
Today, Leavenworth is an “authentic Bavarian village,” mit der “Wilkommen zum Leavenworth” sign next to the highway, ja? The last apple-packing warehouse bit the dust two years ago. There’s no sign the railroad was ever there. The millionaires have built their palaces in the surrounding canyons, and you have to be a millionaire to stay at any of the local motels.

The result is authentic, all right … authentic tourist trap.

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