The potential for increased traffic resulting from a proposed large apartment project on U.S. Highway 93 seemed to garner the top spot of concern last week for both the public and members of the Whitefish Planning Board.
Will MacDonald is requesting to develop 234 apartments on the former North Valley Hospital site using a planned unit development overlay on the 11.8 acres property.
While some folks during Thursday’s planning board meeting said they welcome apartments, they also raised concerns about adding to what’s already seen as a bottleneck for traffic along Columbia Avenue and 13th Street. The streets, along with the intersection at Highway 93, see a heavy amount of traffic in the morning and after school as drivers use the route to access Whitefish High School and Muldown Elementary School.
During public comment, Columbia Avenue resident Terry Petersen said there’s a “parade” on her street every morning and afternoon.
“Columbia Avenue becomes a speedway,” she said. “This is an area we can’t ignore.”
Boardmember John Ellis called the developer’s traffic study invalid and said plans to add stop signs at Columbia Avenue and 13th Street will result in a backup of traffic.
“It’s adding to a traffic nightmare,” he said.
Riverbank Properties plans to extend Columbia Avenue from 13th Street south through the site. It also plans to extend 15th Street from the highway into the property. Both streets would be constructed to city standards.
The Planning Board ultimately tied 3-3 on a vote of a positive recommendation for the project, so it will be forwarded to City Council without a recommendation. City Council is set to hold a public hearing on the project at its first meeting next year on Jan. 7.
Boardmember Allison Linville said the development would put stresses on the surrounding streets, but is also necessary to provide housing for those who want to live here.
“We are a resort community without any housing and this provides that housing,” she said.
The project, called Riverbank Residences, proposes to construct seven buildings on the site. The buildings would house 90 studio apartments, 90 one-bedroom units and 54 two-bedroom units at the site across the highway from Safeway. About 3.75 acres, or 31 percent of the property, is proposed to be as common area open space including along the Whitefish River.
Will MacDonald said developers of the project did a marketing analysis to determine what type of housing is needed here.
“We do need housing,” he said. “The Valley needs rentals. At 234 units we really can take a chunk off the housing need.”
As part of the project, Riverbank Properties plans to provide deed-restricted affordable housing for 47 of the 234 units. The apartments will be designated for those with incomes of 60 to 100 percent of the adjusted area median income, and would become restricted and managed by the Whitefish Housing Authority.
A two-person household making $32,000 per year would be considered at 60 percent of median annual income and would pay $800 per month in rent under the proposal, according to planning staff. The area median annual income for two people is $48,400.
City Planner Wendy Compton-Ring said the project would provide needed housing as called for in the city’s 2016 housing needs study and subsequent strategic housing plan that showed that roughly 900 residential units are needed to accommodate employee households through 2020 in Whitefish. Those units are described as being both at market value and at affordable prices.
“This would go a long way toward achieving the housing need,” she said.
Parking spaces in the site are proposed at a total of 321 off-street spaces in addition to on-street parking. The developer is requesting a deviation to provide fewer parking spaces than required. The total required spaces without a deviation would be 374 spaces, so the developer is requesting to provide 53 total fewer spaces than required.
During public comment, Bob Dye said he has concerns about the added traffic and that the developer is asking for reduced parking.
“I’m worried about the quality of life in Whitefish,” he said. “The quality of life in Whitefish gets worse and worse.”
Molly Higgins Bruce expressed concerns about the density of the project.
“This is unlike anything we have in Whitefish,” she said. “There is a whole lot of people crammed in here — it’s really too dense.”
Jenna Roberts said the development would offer needed housing and also provide the benefit of public access to the river.
“I’m excited about this project,” she said. “A lot of my friends now can’t afford housing.”
The developer plans to construct and deed to the city a paved trail along the Whitefish River and also create more primitive walking paths along the river. Five parking spaces are proposed near the paved path to facilitate public use of the river trail.
The build-out of the site is expected to occur in one to two years, according to the application with the city.