Whitefish Grapples With Downtown Parking

By Beacon Staff

Business owners, visitors and city officials say lack of parking is a growing concern in downtown Whitefish. That much is known. But what isn’t known is precisely how to address the issue.

At a work session on March 19, the Whitefish City Council reviewed options to alleviate parking concerns. Citing the city’s downtown master plan, councilors discussed the possibility of building a parking deck above the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway lot north of the O’Shaughnessy Center, a multi-level parking structure at the lot at Spokane Avenue and Second Street and other proposals.

Then at an April 2 meeting, the council voted on two measures that are relatively small pieces of the overall parking puzzle but nevertheless reinforced the immediacy of the parking dilemma.

The council approved a proposal to give most of the parking spots around the O’Shaughnessy Center two-hour limits and a separate proposal to increase the time limit of spots in the Spokane and Second parking lot to three hours from two hours.

The public parking situation around the O’Shaughnessy Center was altered last fall when BNSF reclaimed the lot north of the cultural arts center. The rail company needed the parking area to accommodate an increase in employees.

City Manager Chuck Stearns said the council has identified parking as a top priority for tax-increment finance funding. But there are a number of questions that must be answered before the city can move forward with pursuing a parking project, chief among them cost, feasibility and financing options.

Also, the city is eyeing a new City Hall, either at the current location or elsewhere. If City Hall were to move, it would free up a chunk of downtown real estate that could hold a parking structure.

Furthermore, city officials would like to know if a hotel is going to be built at the empty lot on the corner of Central Avenue and First Street. The city’s downtown master plan identifies a boutique hotel as a potential infill project.

Eric Payne of Frontier Builders, the owner of the lot, has indicated he is open to talking about a hotel at the site. If a hotel is built, the city has discussed the possibility of working out a public-private parking arrangement.

In their parking discussions, city officials have been referencing both the city’s downtown master plan, completed in 2005, and a 2008 report completed by Walker Parking Consultants.

Stearns said the city council has talked about updating the downtown master plan, a process that would address parking.

“Some discussions would come out of that,” Stearns said.

Rhonda Fitzgerald of the downtown group Heart of Whitefish said it’s “human nature to park as close as possible,” which means most people want to park on Central Avenue. A proper solution to the parking dilemma, she said, would accommodate the needs of shoppers and diners as best as possible while also providing nearby parking for downtown business employees.

Fitzgerald said research has pointed to the lot at Spokane and Second as the best option for a parking structure. The city had considered a parking structure there before opting for a surface lot instead, though the multi-level garage idea is still on the table.

“I think that if we could add some decks to that spot,” Fitzgerald said, “and store more cars on that same piece of real estate, that would be best.”

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