Downtown Beautification Gets The Green Light

Monday night the Whitefish City Council voted to go ahead and start the process to make the downtown area more pedestrian friendly, but tabled a decision to proceed with a new parking garage until it’s next meeting.
The two projects are the first elements of an extensive series of major changes called the Whitefish Downtown Business District Master Plan. The plan has been in the works for seven years. Crandall Arambula P.C., an urban design firm from Portland, is the main consultant. The primary purpose, according to advocates, is to keep the downtown retail area healthy and growing.
In spite of some misgivings about costs, the council agreed to start the process to implement three out of four of the main elements of the conceptual designs for beautifying Central Avenue. Sidewalks will be widened 18 inches on both sides of the street from Railway Street to Third Street, special curbs and elevated pedestrian crossings will be built at major intersections, landscaping, including trees, benches, planters, and new lights, will be installed throughout.
Cost was the major concern for the council during their discussions.
“How did this go from $3.5 million to $5.5 million?” Mayor Mike Jensen asked project director George Crandall. “There’s some terrific sensitivity to the source of this money,” Jensen said, adding it’s resort tax money, and the larger amount will delay other street projects for years.
Crandall explained the $3.5 million figure didn’t include the side streets, more consultant fees, and work schedules designed to minimize disruption to the downtown retail businesses. He also explained that a vote now would only start the process and that changes could be made along the way.
Councilor Nick Palmer was also concerned about the additional costs. “The resort tax folks were willing to go $3.5 million for Central. Then they added the side streets,” Palmer said. “Let’s cut to the chase. What would it cost to just do Central Avenue?”
In the end, the council voted to approve the conceptual designs of the downtown plan, minus the mid-block pedestrian crossings, subject to future funding concerns being addressed.
Making a decision to proceed with the proposed three story, half-block big parking garage and retail space at the corner of Spokane and Second Avenue proved more difficult.
At one point during the lengthy discussion about the garage, Deputy Mayor Nancy Woodruff said she wanted a workshop before making a decision. “I think we’re floundering,” she said.
The comment drew a rebuke from Jenson, who said, “Every time this council seems to be faced with a tough decision, we put it off. We need to take care of business.”
Jensen said he thinks the parking garage is good, and will also benefit Central School. He said he thinks the top floor should be turned over to the downtown businesses for employee parking because the lot was bought with their improvement district money.
Palmer said the city would be smarter to pave the spot where the garage is proposed and sell the part facing Second Street for retail space. Then when the city builds a new city hall near the railroad depot, they could build a garage where the old city hall is using the money made from selling the retail space. “Then we are not spending so much of our (resort tax) money to benefit such a small segment of our community,” he said.
When Palmer added, “This is a fiscally unsound plan,” Councilor Turner Askew said, “I find it interesting. I’m agreeing with Nick Palmer.” The comment drew laughter from city staff.
In the end the council decided they needed more information about costs before proceeding, and a motion to table discussion until the next meeting was made by Councilor John Muhlfeld and seconded by Councilor Shirley Jacobson. “I can’t go along with building the parking garage as it is,” Jacobson said.
The motion massed 4-2.
“It’s a lot to expect this council to sit here and make a decision made by a previous council without accurate fiscal information. I would rather be conservative and use a little caution,” Muhlfeld said.

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