Envisioning an Improved Downtown, Kalispell Finalizes New Strategy

From wider sidewalks to a performing arts venue, city considering changes to improve vitality, business success

By Dillon Tabish

Displayed prominently near the beginning of a 61-page document outlining goals, issues and potential changes in downtown Kalispell, there’s a black-and-white photo from 1940. The image, part of a comprehensive document that has been in the making for years and lays out a revitalized vision for the heart of the city, captures the essence of the plan: crowds of pedestrians walking in front of bustling storefronts along Main Street while calm traffic cruises through a two-lane corridor.

“This plan seeks to restore Kalispell’s downtown to its roots as a place people want to stay and enjoy, rather than pass through at near highway speeds,” the documents states. “The purpose of Main Street needs to be restored.”

City planners, with the input of residents, businesses and property owners, have been crafting Kalispell’s so-called Downtown Plan for a few years, hoping to create a strategy that would improve public and private interests in the area and set it apart from other commercial districts, such as the bustling north end. More than 100 interviews were conducted with stakeholders to identify concerns and aspirations in the city’s historic center.

Now the sweeping plan is finally ready for primetime.

The Kalispell Planning Board is scheduled to hold its final work session at its Aug. 8 meeting. Then the city council will hold a public hearing accepting input on the proposed plan before deciding whether to adopt it as a formal revitalization strategy that would direct changes in the area, including improved walkability and parking opportunities along with reduced driving lanes.

The Kalispell Chamber of Commerce has already chimed in, applauding the effort and offering suggestions, such as lowering the city’s impact fee schedule to reduce the burden on businesses interested in investing in downtown and considering alternate uses for certain city-owned lots.

Joe Unterreiner, president of the Kalispell chamber, said in an email to the city’s planning board that the new vision will serve Kalispell well in the long term, but several hurdles exist that hamper urban renewal in downtown, such as aging infrastructure, smaller sites and the lack of available and affordable alcohol licenses.

Despite the challenges, momentum is on the side of downtown Kalispell. The valley as a whole is experiencing widespread economic expansion alongside population growth. Also, the new downtown plan is coinciding with another transformational effort in the core area of Kalispell, involving the development of a new rail yard off Whitefish Stage Road and the relocation of two rail-served businesses, a series of developments that will allow the city to remove the downtown railroad tracks and build a sprawling trail system in the next two years.

City Manager Doug Russell said the city is slated to receive $10 million in federal transportation funding later this month to go toward the rail park, which is scheduled to break ground in late August.

So what’s potentially in store for downtown Kalispell?

Among the many proposed possibilities, here are a few goals in the draft version of the Downtown Plan:

Wider Sidewalks

Expand the sidewalks by 6 feet to allow outdoor eating areas and merchant displays, more room for trees and landscape features and other public space amenities.

Cyclist-friendly Routes

Improved cyclist environment with safe routes and available bike racks to encourage bicyclists to stay downtown.

Intersection Corner Bump-outs

Add extended sidewalks to intersections that create safer, more inviting pedestrian street crossings.

Reduce Main Street to Two Lanes

Bring traffic lanes down from four lanes to two lanes, while incorporating a center turn lane. This would reduce congestion and noise, slow traffic and dis-incentivize trucks using Main Street as a thoroughfare, the document says.

Add a Landscaped Median

Develop a landscaped median on Main Street from 8th and 6th streets.

Maintain Parallel Parking on Main Street

Provide parking on both sides, separating pedestrians from the traffic. Other streets might redesign to include angle parking, which can calm traffic and are pedestrian and business friendly, the document says.

Consider Developing a Parking Structure

A study of downtown found that there are generally parking opportunities available throughout the day. However, the continued reliance on surface parking will continue to inhibit growth in the downtown, the study found. A parking structure, whether free-standing or integrated in new mixed-use construction, should be part of the long-term planning for downtown as “hot spots” become more common, the document says. From a practical standpoint, if the city continues to rely on surface parking, future development downtown is effectively capped.

Focus on Fostering an Entertainment District

Interviews with residents and business owners found a strong design for an improved entertainment experience in downtown. Survey responses indicate that dining and shopping are the top two primary motivators for getting people downtown, the plan says. The current state liquor laws are directly limiting restaurant and entertainment activity in downtown Kalispell.

Consider Creating a Performing Arts Venue

Not only is a performing arts venue within downtown a cultural asset, but it also puts “feet on the street,” especially at night, the city plan states. Kalispell could consider building something similar to performing arts centers in Bigfork and Whitefish.

To read the full Downtown Plan, visit http://kalispell.com/community_economic_development/TheDowntownPlan.php

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