What’s Next for Kalispell?

By Beacon Staff

In many ways the core of Kalispell still resembles its industrial roots. Railroad tracks slice through the heart of town, cutting off streets and alienating detached city blocks and neighborhoods. Main Street is a major highway, U.S. 93, which expands into six lanes near Depot Park and the Kalispell Center Mall. Few trees exist. Paved or gravel lots sit vacant.

This industrial landscape cultivated the city’s identity over the last century. It helped Kalispell flourish and become the economic center of the Flathead Valley and the largest market in Northwest Montana.

But almost 120 years after the first railroad tracks were laid, the city has evolved. Its economy has diversified. New trends have emerged and the historic center of town continues trying to find its modern identity.

Plans to address moribund conditions and transform the city’s core into a revitalized mixed-use center are gathering steam, and the first details of a new redevelopment strategy were recently unveiled.

Local project leaders from CTA Architects Engineers presented a wide range of urban renewal possibilities — some simple and others ambitious — at last week’s crowded Kalispell Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

Artist renderings from the preliminary Kalispell Core Area Revitalization plan depict streets adorned with more trees and wider sidewalks. A dense and cohesive grid of retail, residential and entertainment sites replaces the current “disorganized development” and “chaos,” as CTA’s David Koel described it. The railroad tracks are gone, and in their place is an expansive pedestrian pathway that winds through town, connecting Woodland Park, downtown, the mall, neighborhoods and retail destinations.

“It’s very exciting to dream about what Kalispell could look like,” said CTA project architect Corey Johnson.

The city’s planning department and CTA are continuing additional outreach to gather community input on the preliminary plan. A market analysis is being prepared to predict the feasibility of redeveloping the core area. This marks the first stages of a process that could take 10 to 40 years to manifest.

“While there will most certainly be challenges, a community-based effort can create opportunities to redevelop the core area as something that serves as a binding force in Kalispell, essentially recreating one of our primary cultural areas,” Mayor Tammi Fisher said.
“We may not ever have a better opportunity than we have now to undertake a project of this nature.”

WHY?

In 1891 Kalispell was platted around one specific entity – the railroad. The main line moved north to Whitefish in 1906 but Kalispell continued to grow around its historic center.

“In a way the town has choked off that industrial core,” Katharine Thompson, the city’s community development manager, said in an interview. “We could no longer attract industrial rail users to the center of Kalispell.”

Retail, residential and outdoor amenities have struggled to fit proportionately among industrial sites. CTA’s presentation used the area north of the mall as an example of this disorganized setup: the railroad tracks cut off streets, leaving parcels of land and neighborhoods segmented away from activity. This has resulted in blight or vacant buildings in many areas throughout the core.

An artist rendering of possible redevelopment next to Kalispell Center Mall off Railroad Street. | Click here to enlarge

“We recognize that there are some historic land uses that kind of cast a shadow over properties and sometimes hinder the efforts to develop or redevelop,” Thompson said.

CTA, which has a local portfolio including Glacier High School and Sportsman and Ski Haus, was hired by the city last spring to design a blueprint that could steer future changes in the targeted area: stretching north to East Washington Street; south to First Street; east to Woodland Park; and west to Appleway Drive just past Meridian. As a guide, CTA used 135 property-owner surveys that were conducted by the city’s planning department.

Several key issues arose during the survey process. Removal of the railroad tracks was one. But businesses, like CHS, still use the railroad line, and the city identified the tracks as an important economic driver.

To help maintain a strong rail presence locally, Flathead County Economic Development Authority acquired 40 acres of county land on Whitefish Stage Road this year that will be turned into a rail-served industrial park. This site could facilitate the removal of the tracks in downtown and allow rail businesses to relocate out of the city’s core.

“We can’t really overstate the importance of that piece,” Thompson said of the FCEDA site. “So much of this plan is about the rail.”

With that opportunity in place, CTA looked at “how can we change the tracks from a negative into a positive,” Koel said.

During the community survey process, one common complaint continued to surface — Kalispell is not pedestrian friendly.

“I was surprised at how many people said we want a more walkable downtown core area,” Thompson said.

Businesses complained about the adverse effects of restricted foot traffic, while residents said a livelier downtown needs better and safer walking options.

Like the railroad tracks, Highway 93 remains a giant piece of the puzzle. Having a major thoroughfare running right through town can be a blessing and a curse, as Kalispell Planning Director Tom Jentz put it. As a troublesome example, CTA’s Koel described the common situation along the six-lane Highway 93 near Depot Park, where sparse, narrow sidewalks are pedestrians’ only option.

“Sometimes it feels like you’re taking your life into your own hands because you’re so close to the road,” Koel said.

Solving the heavy flow of traffic on Main Street remains tied to the eventuality of the 93 Alternate Route, which is currently halfway complete and in a standstill waiting for further funding. Until the bypass is completed, city staff believes downtown traffic, including semis, will continue to rumble through town. CTA’s plans include widening sidewalks and narrowing Main Street to three lanes, creating a more pedestrian- and business-friendly atmosphere. However, the state Department of Transportation has strict regulations for altering highways. To reduce U.S. 93, the city would need to prove it is no longer the main thoroughfare, Jentz said.

“That’s a job ahead of us to take care of,” he said. “We’re constrained, but it’s not impossible.”

Meanwhile, current sidewalks could be widened and the railroad tracks could be replaced with a pathway.

“We want people to flow downtown,” Johnson said.

The removal of the tracks would also help disjointed sections of towns. North to south access would be created near the mall and unclog dead-end streets.

“What it looks like now, with the problems and barriers we have, these places are no man’s land,” Koel said.

By creating a more cohesive grid, with new opportunities for foot and vehicle traffic, blighted areas of town will be given “new life.” Jentz said businesses are eager to join the city’s core, especially if they know there could be revitalization. He used the recent announcement that a 40-unit apartment complex for seniors is being developed on the corner of Third Avenue East and East Center Street. The developers emphasized their desire to build near the heart of town, he said. With redevelopment, other residential living opportunities could flourish along with entertainment sites, like an outdoor amphitheater. Gravel lots could be turned into city parks. The city could take the unique qualities and opportunities that Kalispell has and build on those, Koel said.

“That’s what creates a viable community over time,” he said.

FEASIBLE?

Architects and engineers have the pleasure of dreaming big when envisioning a project. CTA’s renderings for Kalispell’s core revitalization include seemingly simple additions, like more trees and sidewalks. But there are also proposals for rooftop and underground parking lots, a civic center near the fairgrounds and an outdoor city plaza.

In Kalispell, this type of dreaming big can be a sensitive subject. After the city’s population boomed by 40 percent from 2000 to 2008, development skyrocketed, only to crash shortly afterward. The valley suffered through the economic recession. The area was home to some of the state’s highest unemployment rates in recent years and major industries, like construction and timber, languished.

Though the economy appears to be improving, many people remain tepid about growth and development.

With this in mind, a feasibility analysis is about to get underway. Montana West Economic Development received a $31,500 grant on behalf of the city to assess the ability to follow CTA’s preliminary revitalization plan and other ideas that could emerge.

In terms of paying for revitalization, several financial opportunities have become available to the city. In 2009, the federal Environmental Protection Agency awarded Kalispell a grant to fund environmental site assessments and cleanup. The city also has a revolving loan fund worth more than $1 million that can spur site cleanups. In 2010, Kalispell was one of only 23 cities in the U.S. to receive an area-wide planning grant that is solely intended to be a catalyst for redevelopment. The city council last year approved the expansion of the West Side Urban Renewal District to include the targeted core area, meaning tax increment finance dollars could also be used for revitalization.

“Those are great tools,” Thompson said of the grants, adding, “The planets and stars are aligning and we may be able to accomplish things we never knew we could.”

The public scoping process will continue and CTA plans on presenting city staff with a finalized document in late autumn. Then public hearings would be held before the plan would be presented to city council for approval.

CTA’s Johnson, who was born in Whitefish, understands why a community could be nervous about dreaming big. But he looks at the city’s history and sees forward thinkers and resilient growth. Kalispell began as a railroad hub, but within years of its inception, the main rail line moved. Some cities would flounder after such a blow. Not Kalispell.

“As a community now, forward thinking is the appropriate thing to do and the responsible thing to do,” Johnson said. “We don’t want to see our community stagnate. We want to see it thrive. We want to see our businesses thrive. So what can we do to promote that? This plan is the step to do that.”

To view CTA’s presentation, visit the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce website at www.kalispellchamber.com.

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