Mixed-use project approved for former Idaho Timber site

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Plans have come forward for a mixed-use development at the former Idaho Timber site on the north end of Karrow Avenue. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

A new life is likely ahead for the former Idaho Timber site on the west side of Whitefish.

Whitefish City Council Dec. 4 approved a project for the former industrial site that calls for a mixed-use development that includes a hotel, microbrewery, restaurant, limited retail, artisan workshop space and residential spaces. The project at the north end of Karrow Avenue should bring to fruition a vision outlined in the city’s Highway 93 West corridor plan for the site that has sat largely unused since June 2009.

Casey Malmquist, along with other investors, brought forward the project seeking a preliminary plat and planned unit development overlay for the 14-acre property to create a 22-lot mixed use development.

“We feel we have a project that strongly reflects the intent of the Whitefish growth policy, as well as the community input,” he said. “We look at this as an important addition to a growing Whitefish. Essentially this is an urban core redevelopment project and converting a long blighted industrial area into a vibrant, vital addition to the city of Whitefish.”

City Council approved the project by a 5-1 vote. Councilor Jen Frandsen voted in opposition.

However, the OK came after a host of motions as Council looked to guide what businesses eventually operate there. Council approved a condition that requires any formula business to obtain a conditional use permit before opening.

The amendment passed on a 4-3 vote, with Mayor John Muhlfeld breaking the tie vote. Muhlfeld prompted the discussion of formula business on the site with concerns about the hotel.

“I don’t want a franchise hotel to be in an area that is visible to many neighborhoods in the city,” he said. “For a hotel I’d like to see additional oversight by the Council as to how that development comes through.”

Malmquist told Council that developers are not seeking a franchise hotel for the site, but exact plans aren’t finalized yet and could be reviewed by the city when the time comes.

“We want to look at the whole development in terms of character and design,” he said. “Maybe we could come to some kind of agreement for what we’re not going to do.”

Council seemed to appreciate Malmquist’s assurance, but noted that unless a condition was part of the project the city couldn’t enforce that guarantee.

After lobbing around a few suggestions, Council finally settled on requiring any — not just a hotel — formula business to obtain a conditional use permit before opening on the site. Councilor Andy Feury said he wouldn’t expect many franchise businesses to operate at the development.

“You’re probably not going to get many and then if we have issues with those businesses, they have to come for a CUP,” he said. “We could get review that way.”

Prior to the vote, City Attorney Angela Jacobs cautioned Council that the move may be considered as treating formula business different than any other business, and could “raise some issues.”

“I have concerns that this is singling them out,” she said. “It can be considered arbitrary singling out formula businesses.”

Frandsen expressed reservations about the condition requiring a CUP noting that large commercial buildings already have to follow city rules and pass through the city’s architectural review committee.

“Some formula hotels will do a whole lot better of building and maintaining a hotel than some independents,” she said. “This gets a bit arbitrary and what my bigger concern is we’re looking at what a formula business brings that is of concern — is signage too large, is it lighting or color — those things we already have processes for. Restricting formula business might not be the right idea.”

The proposed development would happen in six phases. The development is planned to include artisan spaces, a microbrewery, professional office and condominium spaces, a 70-room boutique hotel, a restaurant and private railcar parking.

The site plan calls for 5 acres of open space with urban-type open space with plazas and open space areas along the Whitefish River that includes an extension of the Whitefish River trail. The site plan also calls for a future bridge across the Whitefish River to connect with the BNSF Loop Trail, though the developer would not be constructing the bridge.

Malmquist said the project will develop the half-mile of pathway and include a larger than required green space.

“We are developing an absolutely gorgeous piece of the Whitefish River waterfront that will be available to the public,” he said.

The project is expected to generate an average of about 5,800 vehicle trips per day at full build-out, according to the developer’s traffic study. Based upon that, the intersection at West Second Street and Karrow Avenue will require the installation of a traffic signal at the time of full build-out.

The developer will need to work with the city and the Montana Department of Transportation for installation of the light, according to the city planning department.

During the public hearing, Gail Linne expressed concerns about how the project might impact parking in the residential neighborhoods surrounding the property. Speaking on behalf of about a dozen property owners, she told council that neighbors are pleased that the project could provide positive amenities nearby and includes a pedestrian path and access to the Whitefish River.

“However, we are greatly concerned that the extent and type of development being proposed will have a serious negative impact on traffic,” she said.

Linne said neighbors are concerned about cars parking on Murray Avenue as a result of the development.

Councilor Richard Hildner encouraged neighbors to return to the city if a parking issue develops to request “parking controls.”

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