Planning Board recommends mixed-use development on Spokane Ave

An unusually shaped piece of property described as difficult is one step closer to being developed as a mixed-use building and park with a recommendation from the Whitefish Planning Board.

The mixed-use planned unit development (M-PUD) on 2.24 acres of land is located at 509 East Sixth Street and 806 Spokane Avenue. Monte Gilman, owner MG Ventures, and is the applicant interested in developing a three-story mixed-use building with commercial on the first floor and four residential units on the second and third floors for a total of eight residential units as well as 11 underground parking spaces.

According to the staff report, the proposed development involves zoning deviations in exchange for a community benefit. The applicant is proposing to dedicate approximately one acre of riverfront property to the city for the purpose of parkland to provide access to the river trails and Whitefish River. The deal includes six parking spaces dedicated for public use.

There are four zoning deviations requested by the applicant, the first of which involves the overall height of the building. Gilman is asking to extend the maximum height limit from 35 feet to 45 feet because the land slopes down to the river.

Two other deviations from the code concern parking spaces. Currently, required parking is not permitted to be in the front yard setback and all parking is required to be provided on the lot with the development. The applicant wants to provide nine parking spaces in the front yard setback and 24 parking spaces to the south of the project on the property proposed to be dedicated to the city for parkland purposes.

The fourth variance applies to the water quality buffer. Development along the Whitefish River requires a buffer of 75 feet or ‘top of bank’ but because this site has been graded extensively over the years, the top of bank is indiscernible. The developer will use the 75-foot buffer in addition to the building’s 20-foot setback.

The current layout of the site shows the building is in accordance with the setback and buffer requirements but a portion of the parking spaces and drive aisles are not. For this reason, the applicant may need another variation.

“This 806 Spokane property is pretty much worthless to anybody but me and the city of Whitefish,” Gilman said. “It’s been on and off the market for years.”

“I think this is a good use for this property. It’s been available for decades,” replied Board Member Scott Freudenberger.

Planning Board Chair Steve Qunell and member Toby Scott asked about surfaces other than asphalt, like bricks, for the parking areas due to concerns about water runoff. Whitefish Public Works Director Craig Workman said, “There will be an approved stormwater management plan with this project.”

The size and design of the building was a sticking point for the public and several board members.

During public comment, concerns were voiced about the bulk, mass and scale of the building and resident Rhonda Fitzgerald said, “This is a really big building, unlike any of the buildings around it.”

She and resident Mark Andreas also took offense at the applicant’s depiction of the area and “poo-pooing” the local charm by saying their new structure is of “higher quality and style than many of the existing buildings in this area.”

Andreas is a homeowner who lives across the street from the proposed development and he is concerned with the construction might cause damage to his home which was built in 1956. He also wants to know what the city’s long range plan is for his neighborhood and in a letter to the board, Andres wrote, “If the city will continue to flex and bend its zoning and planning restrictions for the wealthy, please take into consideration your residents.”

“It is a unique property in Whitefish,” said Vice-Chair John Ellis. “I wish the building could look more than just a square box. We have a lot of square boxes recently built downtown and along 93 North.”

Board member Whitney Beckham said she appreciated the parkland then added, “I do not think in any way this style of building is fitting with the character but you basically let us know you are maximizing profit in order to dedicate this land.”

Chairman Qunell reminded the board that the plan will go through architectural review before it becomes official. He planning board doesn’t approve the building, they just approve the land use.

Staff recommended approval to the planning board with 15 conditions, some of which are that the river trail must not be located any closer to the Whitefish River than it is currently, a geotechnical letter is required as is a report with the final Whitefish River buffer details . The applicant is also required to obtain a floodplain permit, a permit from the conservation district and a water quality protection permit.

Vice-Chair Ellis then made a friendly amendment that states the building height deviation is permitted only as shown in the supplied east and west elevation drawings. Whitefish City Planning Director Dave Taylor suggested that the board add another friendly amendment to assure a public access easement on the drive aisles so the public can actually get to the public park.

The planning board approved both amendments and voted unanimously to recommend the mixed-use development. A public hearing is set for this item to be before the city council on June 20.

THE PLANNING board also heard a request from True North Partners, LLC, for a zone change for a recently annexed parcel of about 13 acres located at 6335 Highway 93 South.

Since the property is now within the city, the zoning must be changed from its current county zoning designation to a city zoning designation. The applicant has chosen WB-2, or secondary business district for the area to the west of the future Whitefish Avenue right-of-way and WR-2, or two-family residential district for the area to the east.

According to Whitefish Senior Planner Wendy Compton-Ring the applicant is interested in building two-unit townhouses at some point in the future so the WR-2 zoning is appropriate and in keeping with the growth policy.

Dom Goble, a representative of True North Partners, said they plan to continue the Whitefish river trail along the edge of the parcel and pave it.

The board voted 5-1 in favor of recommending the zone change to the city council, with Ellis voting in opposition. The matter goes to city council on June 20.