Council drops full ground floor retail requirement for Central Ave. building

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The former home of Lakestream Fly Shop at 334 Central Avenue. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

Seeming to reverse course, City Council decided last week to allow a planned mixed-use building on Central Avenue to house commercial business on the ground floor in addition to retail.

Council modified one of the conditions of a conditional use permit that allows for the construction of a new building at the site of the former Lakestream Fly Shop. The condition now says that the building must contain on the first floor at least 70 percent as retail and could have 30 percent as commercial businesses, though all spaces fronting Central Avenue must be retail.

It did stick with a previous condition that the building be constructed to the lot line.

Council on Jan. 22 split on the vote 3-2 to approve the change allowing commercial on the first floor. Councilors Richard Hildner and Ryan Hennen voted in opposition. Councilor Katie Williams was absent from the meeting.

Hildner said he maintains his original position that the entire first floor should contain retail business.

“I won’t vote for it because I thought the original was appropriate,” he said.

Councilor Andy Feury said the developer could construct three separate buildings on the site because it’s three lots, and have both retail and commercial use by right.

“The intent of the downtown master plan was to not create dead zones,” he said. “By having 30 percent commercial at the back of the building, you’re not going to create a dead zone on the street because you’re still requiring what is fronting Central to be retail.”

A conditional use permit is required to construct the building because it exceeds 7,500 square feet, has more than four residential units and is in the WB-3 zone and Old Town Central District.

Council on Jan. 7 approved the CUP for the building as requested by Bill Goldberg, who owns the property and plans to construct the mixed-use building with retail and commercial space on the first floor, and residential on the second and third floors.

However, the developer of the project requested that Council reconsider two conditions it added earlier in the month to the CUP.

In representing the developer, Aaron Wallace of Montana Creative, argued that commercial and retail spaces should be permitted on the ground floor based upon zoning code for blocks north of the site between Third Street and Railway Street that allow no more than 30 percent of the ground floor not visible from Central to be used for commercial uses such as professional offices.

“This would make this site consistent with the rest of downtown and not be the spot zoning as it is proposed with this condition,” Wallace said.

Goldberg said the first floor of the building would be about 9,000 square feet in size and the demand for retail businesses looking to operate in larger retail spaces is limited.

“If you follow what the rest of downtown is that puts about 7,000 square feet of retail,” he said of the 70 percent retail allowance. “I think that is a substantial amount of retail.”

Those who have raised issue with the plans for the building, however, have argued strongly for requiring retail only on the first floor.

Rhonda Fitzgerald, with the Heart of Whitefish, said the downtown master plan has provided the base for a thriving downtown and it should be followed.

“The primary retail streetscape was always intended to continue from Railway all the way to Fourth Street,” she said. “It includes certain requirements that include ground floor retail.”

Fitzgerald said ground floor retail is intended to strengthen the downtown environment with an active, healthy retail environment.

In February last year, Council denied a request from Fresh Life Church to construct a mixed-use building at the same location. The plan called for the church to be located at the back of the first floor and retail space fronting Central Avenue, but Council at the time said that plan didn’t include continuous ground floor retail.

Goldberg also asked Council to allow the building to be setback five feet on the north and south sides.

Council last week did also reconsider the condition that the building be constructed fully to the lot line on the first floor rather than set back five feet as proposed by the developer. However, Council voted to retain requiring construction to the lot lines on the north and south.

Wallace said the setback would create a better experience for those in the building, and would also fit better with the adjacent buildings on the block that are not anticipated to be developed.

The city’s Architectural Review Committee also sent a letter to Council saying it too would prefer to see the building set back from the lot line.

While the design might not fit with the downtown master plan, the committee said “it would better fit into the context of the block.”

Fitzgerald drew on the downtown master plan to ask Council to keep the requirement of constructing the building to the lot line.

“Building to the lot lines ensures compatibility and harmony between buildings, enabling a series of different buildings to maintain a continuous vertical wall,” she said. “New buildings too tall, too massive and out of character create visual chaos destroying the special character that makes our city successful.”

Council in a split vote denied removing the requirement that the building on the first floor be constructed to the lot line.

Councilor Melissa Hartman argued that it would not sacrifice the vision of the block to allow the building to be setback.

“My concern is seeing the renderings prior to new construction coming in next door and it’s not so attractive,” she said “I question how long we will have to live with that.”

Feury said while it may take a long time for other buildings on the block to redevelop, it is important to follow the downtown master plan.

“In the short-term we’re not mitigating the impacts to the buildings on the north or south — both those property owners would prefer to see some separation between the buildings,” he said. “Five feet is not a huge deal, but honoring the downtown master plan though is something that we’ve stuck with our guns pretty strongly to.”

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