Whitefish Plans for Facelift, Parking Garage

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – Construction on a parking garage in downtown Whitefish should begin next year, while a street improvement project along Central Avenue and intersecting side streets is poised to follow in upcoming years, according to an engineering team that presented its conceptual design plans last week at the Roy Duff Memorial Armory.

John Wilson, public works director for Whitefish, said the projects are designed to help Whitefish keep up with these times of growth.

“It’s not to revitalize downtown,” he said, “but it’s to stay ahead of the curve.
And it’s to help make (downtown) an environment that new businesses want to come to.”

An engineering team from Robert Peccia & Associates unveiled its plans on Dec. 12 to make downtown more pedestrian-friendly and attractive, as well as more convenient with the three-level parking garage. In the first of several public meetings, the team spoke to a room of 26 that included Whitefish’s current mayor, the elected soon-to-take-office mayor, the president of the planning board and city council members. The two projects stem from the city’s Downtown Master Plan, which is the design team’s “guiding principle,” said project manager Ryan Mitchell.

The design team has spent recent months working with an advisory committee that consists of Whitefish’s mayor, city manager, city planner and others. Wilson said the city plans to finance the street project with resort tax dollars and the parking garage through tax increment financing (TIF) gains. Engineers from the design team said it’s too early to put a price tag on either project.

“We’re still working through the details of the funding package,” Wilson said.

The garage, which is planned for 218 parking spaces, will be located directly across Spokane Avenue from Whitefish Middle School, tucked between First and Second streets. The structure will include space for retail and offices, but the rest of the area is dedicated to parking. The open parking space will be disguised by a façade intended to blend in with downtown – on the surface it will look like buildings and passersby won’t be able to see into the garage. The city will manage the garage, though Wilson said it would be preferable to find someone else to deal with the retail space.

“We’re hoping to find some kind of partner for the retail,” he said. “We don’t want to own and manage that property.”

In accordance with the downtown master plan, the design team plans to limit the structure to three levels, keeping it 35 feet in height or shorter. That translates to two levels of covered parking and one rooftop parking level. The design also outlines plans for stairs, elevators, alley and street accesses, and public restrooms. Vehicular entrance will be on the First Street side, though in these early stages everything is subject to change, the engineers said. Among the changes to consider, said project engineer Brandon Theis, is the garage’s height.

“If there’s enough people that really want (more height),” Theis said, “it’s a possibility we could go that way. Nothing is settled yet.”

The street improvement project is aimed at revamping Central Avenue and side streets between Third and Railway. The idea of the Central Avenue project, Mitchell said, is “not to change, but to improve downtown” by making it more attractive, comfortable and pedestrian-friendly. The project will significantly change the face of downtown’s core, adding landscaping at every intersection, decorative streetlights, benches, raised crosswalks, wider sidewalks, and other features.

As the plan stands now, construction would widen Central Avenue’s sidewalk by a foot-and-a-half and lengthen the angled parking spaces by a half-foot while narrowing the driving lanes of the street by two feet. Basically, there will be more room to walk and park, but less to drive. Renovation will also decrease the number of parking stalls along Central Avenue from 50 per block to 43.

On the corners of Central Avenue and side streets there will be landscaped areas with groups of aspen trees. Nearby will be decorative streetlights, trash receptacles and bike racks, along with informational kiosks. Plans call for raised crosswalks with detectable textured surfaces on the outer edges that meet American Disabled Association standards. Crosswalks are also planned in the middle of blocks on Central Avenue.

On side streets, some sidewalks now are only five-feet wide, though others are as wide as 10. The plan will make them all of them 11.5. Construction will also decrease the number of parallel parking spots on these streets from 24 to 20.

Mitchell wants to get as much public input as possible as the team moves toward developing more concrete design layouts.

“We want the citizens to get involved,” Mitchell said. “It’s their town.”