Preserving the character of Whitefish and warding off the effect of an “Anytown, USA” bannered with formulaic storefronts figured prominently into the Whitefish City Council’s decision last week to vote down a Marriott TownPlace Suites hotel along the gateway corridor to downtown.
But the council showed a slight change of heart following its 4-2 vote against a conditional use permit for the three-story, 81-room hotel off U.S. Highway 93 South, and agreed to reconsider the developer’s application at its July 18 meeting.
The motion to approve the Marriott along with two additional conditions to screen the property with landscaping failed, with councilors Jen Frandsen and Frank Sweeney voting in the minority.
The vote to deny was followed by a successful motion to postpone the decision, and councilors asked staff and the city attorney to draft findings of fact that would support the council’s authority to issue a decision to deny.
The proposed hotel is a downsized version of an earlier request from the developers to construct a larger hotel with 111 rooms and 115 parking spaces, which would have included a zoning deviation to build up to 42 feet in height.
The revised hotel would be located at 6361 Highway 93 South, would have 90 parking spaces and two driveways off a new east-west public street constructed from U.S. 93 to Whitefish Avenue, and would be 35 feet in height. The developer is also proposing to build an outdoor pool and outdoor seating areas on both the north and south sides of the building.
The project requires a conditional use permit because at more than 17,500 square feet, its footprint exceeds the 15,000-square-foot zoning condition, requiring a variance.
Jordan Scott, of Whitefish TP, LLC, is requesting the permit, and said locating a branded hotel while maintaining the character of Whitefish is no easy feat, but the developers took care not to compromise the city’s charm.
“I have been a visitor to Whitefish for 22 years, and as a tourist I always look forward to visiting the shops and restaurants. One of the great things about downtown Whitefish is that it is unique. It does not have the chains and brands that you find in any other city,” Scott said. “And as a hotel developer who specializes in brands, it is a difficult position to find a fitting place for a branded hotel here. But we feel we have found an adequate site.”
“It’s very in keeping with the community,” added Eric Mulcahy, of Sands Surveying, who is representing the developers of the proposed project.
Some residents did not agree with that assessment, while others said Whitefish was already bloated with lodging accommodations and adding a new hotel would dilute the market.
Whitefish resident Judy Spivey spoke out against the hotel during the meeting’s public hearing segment, quoting Alexis de Tocqueville and calling the proposed development “an assault on the community.”
“Don’t allow the city to become another Anytown, USA,” Spivey said.
Councilor Sweeney said he shares the concerns about branded businesses cropping up on the strip leading to the city center, but that landscaped and screened appropriately “so that it doesn’t look like Anytown, USA or the commercial strip in Kalispell, I can feel ok about approving this sort of formulaic use.”
The Marriott proposal is the third hotel project to surface in Whitefish in the past year.
The three-story, 86-room Firebrand Hotel is nearing completion at the downtown corner of Second Street and Spokane Avenue. On U.S. 93, a 76-room Hampton Inn and Suites has been complete off the highway behind the former Wendy’s restaurant site, also is three stories high.
Rhonda Fitzgerarld, owner of the Garden Wall Inn in downtown Whitefish, cautioned that squeezing too many cookie-cutter accommodations into and around the city center would not only strain the market, but it would begin to characterize the town.
“We are at risk of losing our town,” she said. “ I think we are at a tipping point when we have to really say what are we going to become. If we are going to become a town of hotels and restaurants and tee shirt shops, I think most of us won’t want to live here.”
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