Early Designs Take Shape for Whitefish City Hall and Parking Structure

By Beacon Staff

Whitefish city officials know that two of their biggest priorities are parking and a new city hall. What they also want to know is if they can solve both issues with one project.

The city council and an ad-hoc city hall steering committee recently reviewed two preliminary design plans for a combined city hall and parking structure on the corner of Baker Avenue and Second Street, at the site of the current city hall.

Kimley-Horn and Associates, hired by the city to conduct a parking structure feasibility study, presented an update along with MMW Architects on their analysis – including the two design alternatives – at a Dec. 3 city council work session. Then the steering committee looked at the design plans at a Dec. 13 meeting.

One design alternative is for a two-story city hall along Second Street with a parking garage on the site’s north end along Baker Avenue and First Street. The other is for a one-story city hall along Baker with retail space on Second and a parking structure throughout the northern and eastern parts of the block, as well as above the offices.

Both designs have vehicle access off of First Street and call for a brick building. There are multiple garage layout options with up to three levels providing between 191 and 264 spaces, though some options would require a variance to the city’s building height restrictions. Cost estimates range between $4.1 and $5.9 million.

City Manager Chuck Stearns, who is also on the city hall committee, stresses that the designs are preliminary and intended to give people a visual reference as the concept takes shape.

“It’s extremely preliminary; it’s very conceptual,” Stearns said. “It gives people a feel for what it could look like. It could be greatly changed as we go through the design of city hall.”

The city council voted in September to rebuild city hall at its current location, rather than build at a new site or relocate in an existing building. Then in October the council directed the consultants to narrow their analysis down to exploring possibilities for combining parking at the new city hall.

The consultants will continue working on the parking feasibility study, with a final meeting expected with the city on Feb. 4. After that point, Stearns said the council will have to decide between two onsite parking options at the new city hall: surface parking or a structure. The steering committee would like the council to make that fundamental decision before it proceeds with selecting an architect for city hall.

A parking structure is the “most bang for your buck,” Stearns said, while surface parking presents concerns such as sprawl. Other potential problems with surface parking lots identified through the feasibility process include insufficient spaces, the necessitation of aggressive enforcement and time limits, and inconvenience for retail customers.

Stearns said the council could also decide to revisit other downtown parking options, such as a multi-level structure at the Spokane and Second lot. But he reiterated that right now the focus is to explore the best options for onsite parking at city hall.

An earlier study said Whitefish needs at least 200 more downtown parking spaces for peak demand periods.

George Gardner, a steering committee member, is displeased with the design alternatives and feels city hall is taking a back seat to the parking structure.

“City hall to me is the most important element,” Gardner said. “In my opinion, (the consultants) minimized the city hall. The city hall was like an afterthought. That bugged me.”

Gardner believes it’s too early in the process to discuss design plans, before a final architect has been selected and while the city still has major decisions to make about parking.

“City hall is going to be probably the most important building in 100 years and we’re going to have to live with it for 100 years,” he said. “We’ve lived with the other one for 100 years.”

But Ross Anderson, another board member and an architect, said the consultants were asked to provide a conceptual plan to see whether it’s feasible to build a parking structure at the site, “and they did that.”

“They weren’t charged to come up with a fantastic design of city hall and a parking structure – they needed to show that it’s feasible,” he said.

Given that request, Anderson is happy with the design alternatives provided by the consultants. It’s early in the process, but Anderson likes the direction of where city hall is heading thus far.

“We’re excited about the project and we’re looking forward to it putting a feather in the cap of Whitefish,” he said. “We hope it’s a nice one.”

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