Of all the testimonies I heard regarding the 7th Street Apartments at the Whitefish Planning Board hearing on Dec. 19, two seemed to strike the strongest chord with me.
First was the comment from the architect (and representative of the developing entities) who described dropping off his child for school at Muldown Elementary and that (said with a chuckle), yes, it’s pretty chaotic over there but seems to work somehow and not last that long. Second, was a neighborhood resident and mother who, every school day, walked her two children to daycare and Muldown across the same chaotic and largely unregulated streets and alley — and out of concern for her children, was moved to tears in the telling. These two solidly contrasting views of the same set of circumstances put what I believe to be the most important aspect of this discussion in a nutshell for me, appropriate density in close proximity to schools.
In 1984 the city drew a WR-4 zoning line which captured the already existing Park Avenue Apartments, a nursing home, senior apartments, a church and a subsidized living development. This line of retroactive convenience neatly protected the preexisting multi-family developments. Thoughtful consideration was not — and is still not — being given to increased population density of the neighborhood and the schools and preschools there. I am not anti-infill. I am not anti-development. I am not anti-affordable housing. I am in favor of all of these things when accomplished in a thoughtful, thoroughly considered manner.
There is a big difference between 14 and 36 apartments.
The east side neighborhood is made up of largely one- and two-family living units with a sprinkling of high density housing and a large, very large, school zone tucked in at the back of it. It’s a good place for the schools and they are growing in every aspect.
My late foray into the role of neighborhood activist has prompted my admittedly tardy and certainly cursory review of zoning and planning documents of the area to get an understanding of what our future minded planning board and staff are anticipating for growth in this critical area. Surely, we must be encouraging high density development in a scientifically determined proximity to main or secondary traffic arteries? Apparently we don’t do it that way. Our planning department is reactionary, based on what developers bring to them. Further exacerbating the issue is the seemingly ludicrous target in the Housing Needs Assessment of building 580 “affordable” rental units by 2020. According to their own staff analysis, “very little of this housing product type has been actually been constructed.” The remedy therefore, in the eyes of the Planning Department is to approve a very bad proposal to further a well intentioned, but misguided and obviously unrealistic housing goal in a “stack ‘em deep and sell ‘em cheap sort of way.” That housing goal is a fail and the incentives to the developers are a fail. The process, which initially sought to take public input out of the loop is certainly a fail.
Fifty letters and about 40 neighborhood residents and concerned citizens got our planning board to stop and think. A pen, pad of paper and a planning board member with a couple of hours to spare was enough to put many of the planning departments findings in question. Thank you Richard Hildner, empirical knowledge is a beautiful thing.
Please come to the Jan. 6 Council meeting at which the status of this project will be decided. I urge you to write and ask your planning department staff, planning board and city councilors;
• Is the residential area around the schools correctly zoned given current traffic, safety and density issues?
• Is any traffic infrastructure planning being done to ease the current stresses on the neighborhood and maybe allow for growth in the east side neighborhood?
• Demand the elimination of the administrative CUP.
There are many aspects to this issue, neighborhood character, effect of high density housing on property values, negative impact on quality of life. They are all valid and they are all real. Surely we all need to make room for more but let’s be fair, responsible and smart about it.
Rob Akey, Whitefish