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Council shoots down request to abandon downtown alley

by HEIDI DESCH
Whitefish Pilot | July 14, 2021 1:00 AM

Whitefish City Council resoundingly rejected a request last week to abandon a downtown alley saying it needed more specifics for a potential development that could occur adjacent to that alley near the Downtowner Inn.

The owner of the Downtowner Inn had asked the city to abandon the alley that runs along the north side of the hotel so that it could make improvements to the adjacent properties and turn the alley into a pedestrian walkway. The alley connects Spokane Avenue with the alley that runs north to south between East Second Street and East Third Street.

Council in a unanimous vote turned down the request saying it would need more information on plans for development and for the alley before it could consider such a request.

Mayor John Muhlfeld pointed out that downtown property is at a premium in terms of real estate value.

“I understand the concerns for safety, but I don’t think we should donate land to private development,” Muhlfeld said. “I’d like to know how this fits into the larger picture. I’m not necessarily against abandoning the alley, but I think it’s premature to do so.”

Will MacDonald, representing the Downtowner Inn and the Whitefish Hotel Group, said the plan is to turn the alley into a pedestrian walkway and redevelop the adjacent lots.

“We want to create a streetscape experience with cobblestone down the alley and place maybe bollards on each end designating it as for pedestrians,” he said. “If we have that alley we can control traffic flow and make sure pedestrians can move around there.”

MacDonald said the owners are interested in redeveloping the three lots they own on the north side of the alley that front Second Street and potentially the Downtowner building also.

He mentioned several potential plans for the location, including a building containing retail or restaurant space on the first floor, plans for a subsurface parking garage or a hotel that could be connected to the Firebrand Hotel, which is also owned by the Whitefish Hotel Group.

“Abandoning the alley is a critical part of that and we wanted to do that before we put money into a full design,” he said.

Council also pointed out concerns that while the Whitefish Hotel Group owns the three lots, which contain parking and an office building, facing Spokane Avenue that still leaves two lots on the block with a different owner.

Public Works Director Craig Workman says his department supports abandoning the alley since vehicles accessing it can create issues.

“The proximity of the alley to the intersection of Spokane Avenue and Second Street tends to increase congestion there as vehicles wait to turn left into the alley,” he said. “Abandoning the alley would reduce congestion and eliminate conflict with pedestrians who use the sidewalk along Spokane.”

When the city abandons property the ownership then transfers to the adjacent owners. The city has a sewer main that runs through the alley so no structures could be constructed on the property and the city would maintain an easement allowing for access to the main if necessary, Workman noted.

Councilor Ben Davis pointed out that if pedestrian and vehicle safety is the issue then the city could itself close the alley.

“The city giving away land is tricky business,” he said. “If pedestrian safety is the issue then there are other ways this could be solved and that would be with the city closing the alley.”

Councilor Andy Feury pointed out that the alley doesn’t function as it is currently and said that could get worse if properties to the north of it are developed.

“If there’s something built on those lots right to the edge of the alley or the sidewalk then the line of sight would be pathetic and it would be more dangerous and function even less than it does now,” he said.