After Years of Delay, Glacier Town Center Files Development Application

By Beacon Staff

The preliminary map of the proposed Glacier Town Center looks like the framework for a new town. In the end, if approved as proposed, that’s basically what it will be.

Tennessee developer James “Bucky” Wolford filed his development application with the Kalispell City Planning Department on Sept. 10 as the first step toward developing his massive Glacier Town Center after seven years of delays. The 485-acre proposed project includes 1.8 million square feet of commercial and office space, which Kalispell Senior Planner Sean Conrad estimates is more than all of the existing commercial and office space in the area combined – Costco, Lowe’s, Target, Home Depot, the Hutton Ranch Plaza and the rest. And that’s just the commercial part. There’s a lot more.

“It’s such a big project,” Conrad said. “For Kalispell, Montana, and Flathead County, it just seems like an awful lot.”

Conrad said, like with any big development, he expects both passionate critics and adamant supporters, with few hovering in the middle. Kalispell could become a top-notch regional shopping destination, but there are also the usual concerns associated with large projects.

“It’s the same issues,” he said. “Some people love it, some people absolutely hate it.”

In theory, the project recreates a downtown, if not an entire small town. The project’s map details streets, 72.3 acres of parks and open space, residential neighborhoods consisting of 282 single-family residences and 350 multifamily units, and a sprawling layout that’s so sweeping it’s difficult to comprehend on paper.

“With a project like this,” Conrad said, “it’s just trying to get your arms around it.”

Mayor Pam Kennedy welcomes the prospect of such a development, though she stressed it’s far too early to guess what the final outcome will be. The city council hasn’t looked at the proposal yet. If the development were to be approved as the Glacier Town Center in its entirety, though, Kennedy said it would be a positive sign of growth for Kalispell.

“The potential of the development is one that’s going to further the economy of Kalispell as the commercial hub of the Flathead Valley,” she said.

The lifestyle center will be tucked between Whitefish Stage Road and U.S. 93 if approved. There’s much to be done, though, before the proposal can become a reality. Last week, Conrad spent hours reading through the thick application, studying maps and formulating an element review, which is designed to see if the application complies with environmental standards. Conrad said he noticed about 15 points of concern, which he detailed in the review that was sent to CTA Architects and an environmental agency.

After city officials and the public have time to look at the application and comment on it, the planning department will submit it to the planning board in November with a recommendation to approve or deny. Conrad said a copy of the application is available at the Flathead County Library and his planning office. People can also buy an electronic version for $3 at the planning office. A brief overview is available at www.kalispell.com.

Conrad hadn’t yet read the entire application when the Beacon spoke with him, but from looking at the map he was concerned that Wolford hadn’t made any of the planning department’s previously suggested changes. He said the map appears to be almost identical to the pre-application map he had seen earlier.

Among his concerns are both vehicle and pedestrian accessibility, insufficient open space, deficient landscaping and architectural design. By no means, though, did Wolford have to make any of the suggested changes, Conrad said.

“The developer could take (the suggestions) to heart,” Conrad said, “or say, ‘I don’t agree with a lot of the comments the planning department made.’”

Neither Wolford nor his attorney could be reached.

The application is broken into four components: planned unit development (PUD), zoning, annexation and subdivision. Like the project itself, the application is huge. Conrad read through the subdivision application and environmental assessment in order to write his element review, but had not gotten through the rest of it as of Sept. 15.

Kennedy said she was pleased with how Wolford worked through various hurdles, including lawsuits, and remained committed to discussing his plans with surrounding neighborhoods. She said the location for the development is appropriate.

“He’s remained committed to the valley,” she said, “and I think that says a lot about him.”

The Flathead, Kennedy believes, still has room for more retail stores like the ones that would move into the Glacier Town Center. The valley’s retail tenants, she said, will know “when we have reached a saturation point.”

“There was that community fear of downtown going dark many years ago before any of this retail came in,” she said. “We’ve been able, I believe, to get beyond that.”

Tom McElwain, president of the Kalispell Downtown Association, agrees with Kennedy that downtown’s fear of urban sprawl development is mostly unfounded. He recalls the reaction from downtown retailers when Wolford first proposed a mall seven years ago.

“A lot of the downtown people were fighting it and doing everything they could to stop development,” McElwain said. “My perspective is that downtown is unique and I don’t think they need to worry about it.”

“People see (sprawl) coming,” he added. “We need to find ways to take advantage of it – don’t waste money and time fighting something that’s inevitable.”