Council Approves Mixed-Use Development on Spokane; gets a new park in exchange

Whitefish City Council has approved plans for a large mixed-use building at the corner of East Sixth Street and Spokane Avenue – as part of the deal, the city has been granted waterfront property for the use of a public park.

According to the staff report, the proposed development involves zoning deviations in exchange for a community benefit. The applicant proposes to dedicate approximately one acre of waterfront property to the city for park purposes to provide access to river trails and the Whitefish River.

Concerns were raised about the building’s footprint, massing and scale and during public comments from the planning board, resident Rhonda Fitzgerald said: “It’s a very tall building, unlike all the buildings that surround it.”

Monte Gilman of MG Ventures will develop a three-storey building with commercial premises on the first floor and a total of eight residential units on the second and third floors. The property of the proposed building slopes significantly down to the Whitefish River, leading the developer to request a height variance of 45 feet on the side closest to the river, while the side of the building facing Sixth Street will have the height standard 35 feet.

“This property at 806 Spokane has next to no value to anyone but me and the town of Whitefish,” Gilman said. “It’s been on the market and off the market for years.”

When the plan was presented to the Whitefish Planning Board, Vice President John Ellis made a friendly amendment which stated that building height deviation is only permitted as shown in the provided east and west elevation drawings.

The proposal includes MG Ventures donating approximately one acre of waterfront land to the city to use as a park. The city believes there is a public benefit to owning the land for use as a park, as it would provide another public access point to the river. A second benefit to the town is having easier access to a large sewer pipe that runs under the property.

Concerns about the public interest of the property and the possibility of creating an access road to the public part of the plot were discussed. Councilor Ben Davis asked Maria Butts, Director of Parks and Recreation, for her views on the usefulness and value of the park to the community, even if a dock cannot be built due to the topography of the area .

“It serves as an open space, it protects the hallway and it’s a place where people can still sit and enjoy the river,” Butts replied.

Councilor Steve Qunnel said his concern was that the town would take over the property without being able to access the river from it, in part because of the steep path leading to the river. Butts said the area is already being used by the public and the city’s path could be more gradual and should be allowed.

“This property is one the city has wanted to own for, literally, decades,” added Councilor Andy Feury. “It gives us a huge advantage for access to the river and (a) challenge may be there to get a dock and get good access, but…. We can achieve this. The other reason we always wanted to get this property was because of the sewer easement we have around there.

In May, the planning board recommended the plans for approval, as did city staff. The council approved and adopted the project unanimously with two amendments, one relating to the parking spaces and the other to the improvement of the boulevard.

In addition to the eleven underground parking spaces, the project has 24 parking spaces, more than necessary, but the builder has planned to use 12 spaces for residences and staff parking, to leave six for the use of the public and to keep the other six in his name as case plans change in the future.

City staff recommended that an additional 6-12 spaces be reserved for the city for use of the park and trail. The developer fought for parking spaces because the use of the building can change.

“I think we deserve those spots because we don’t know the future of this building,” Gilman said. “I’m sure it will be a real estate agency for quite a while, but one day it might not be and if I pay to put these locations in there, we should get the locations we need for the time and even for the future.”

After some discussion, Councilor Qunell moved a motion to require a minimum of twelve reverse corner parking spaces on the west side of the parking lot, reserved and signposted for public use. The motion carried 5-1.

During the public hearing, Rhonda Fitzgerald asked council to set a condition that the developer would construct “an attractive, high quality streetscape with landscaping, sidewalks, street trees and street lights high quality” along Spokane Avenue. Fitzgerald said that is the requirement for this development under the Highway 93 South Corridor Plan. Mayre Flowers of Citizens for a Better Flathead supported Fitgerald’s comments.

City staff noted that street trees and a boulevard along the freeway would need to be approved by the Department of Transportation. Aaron Wallace of MT Creative, the architect of the project, said he wanted to work with MDT, but his concern was conditional on meeting a requirement that might conflict with another agency.

“We are happy to engage with the state and try to accommodate the scenic corridor and public demands as much as possible,” Wallace said.

Councilor Norton proposed to add a condition requiring the developer to pursue with due diligence street, sidewalk and boulevard improvements as identified in the Highway 93 South Corridor Plan and the motion passed.

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