CTA IN THE NEWS: Kalispell’s ambitious vision for revitalized core coming into focus

By: Travis Estvold
11 September 2017

From flatheadbeacon.com:

“This is truly a transformative moment,” Kalispell Mayor Mark Johnson said last week, speaking to more than 200 people gathered in a dusty, wide-open lot tucked along the eastern outskirts of town. “This is the moment in history 50 years from now we will look back on and realize the pain and sacrifices we made were well worth the effort.”

The bold declaration on Aug. 22 set the stage for a groundbreaking ceremony several years in the making, following countless public and private meetings. It also set the tone for a seismic event that could reverberate across Kalispell and dramatically reshape the landscape in the years to come. The Glacier Rail Park is surfacing. A day after the mayor’s remarks, Kalispell-based construction firm LHC officially began developing the 40-acre property between Whitefish Stage Road and U.S. Highway 2 into a centralized railroad hub for the entire Flathead Valley. The former McElroy-Wilkins gravel pit is playing a pivotal role in a much larger vision: a community revitalization plan that aims to redevelop public infrastructure and attract private investment in the core area of Kalispell.

Among the crowd who arrived to celebrate the historic groundbreaking were U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and administrators from a large lineup of state and federal agencies, as well as BNSF Railway, all echoing Johnson’s sentiments and applauding Kalispell’s collaborative strategy.

Flathead County Economic Development Authority began devising the rail park nearly a decade ago and acquired the land in the spring of 2012 with the help of $1.14 million in federal funds. At the same time, the city of Kalispell began collecting community input to craft a strategy for revitalizing the historic core area once the railroad tracks were relocated.

In the years since, instead of gathering dust, the two projects simultaneously gained momentum. On its third attempt, the city successfully landed a $10 million federal transportation grant that is fueling development of the rail park, and a year ago celebrated the completion of the U.S. Highway 93 Alternate Route, a separate yet similar project that is also creating cascading change in one of Montana’s fastest-growing cities.

What’s Next?

LHC will construct the rail park infrastructure over the next 12 months with a tentative completion date set for August 2018. In the meantime, the city of Kalispell has plenty of details to iron out, including the design of a new two-mile linear park, or trail system, that will replace the downtown railroad tracks and decisions on which streets to reconnect, such as a potential extension of Woodland Avenue to Highway 2.

The ultimate goal is to replace the tracks with a so-called linear park, which could include a landscaped trail system connecting the west and east sides of town. The goal of the trail system is to improve walkability, which residents have increasingly wished for in the core area, according to city officials and planners.

“The design of the (core area revitalization plan) was driven by simple urban design principles of walkability and letting the pedestrian safely and easily move around,” said David Koel with CTA Architects Engineers, the local firm that crafted the original core area plan five years ago. The trail system might just be an asphalt path but could have a much larger ripple effect.

The plan envisions a pedestrian pathway that winds through the heart of town, connecting Woodland Park, downtown, the mall, neighborhoods and retail destinations. “The whole idea behind a good urban plan is to get density,” Koel said. “Permanent residents will live there, shop there, eat there. That type of environment provides viability for businesses and energy for the whole town.”

Density — allowing for mixed-use properties, such as residential and retail, restaurants and coffee shops in a relatively confined area — may seem unattractive in a rural haven like the Flathead Valley, but Koel said it actually helps preserve the greater character of this community. “I love the Flathead Valley, but I’ve noticed that we’ve continued to sprawl,” he said. “We’re eating up our beautiful landscape.”

Potential changes in the heart of the city

1. Glacier Rail Park: The 40-acre site between Whitefish Stage Road and U.S. Highway 2 is being constructed into an industrial rail park, which will house new rail-served facilities for CHS and Northwest Drywall, as well as potential future users. The development of the centralized rail park will allow the city to remove the tracks that cut through downtown.

2. Downtown Linear Park and Trail System: A two-mile trail system and “linear park” will replace the historic railroad tracks slicing through the heart of Kalispell. The pedestrian and bike trail will travel from a new bridge “gateway” over U.S. 2 and run west through downtown before adjoining with the bypass trail system and Great Northern Historic Trail, creating a network connecting Somers, Kila and Kalispell.

3. Improved Walkability: Streets such as Center Street could receive sidewalks and boulevards for the first time while existing sidewalks along streets such as Main could see expanded paths that improve safety and walkability.

4. Higher Density Residential: There are limited opportunities for residential living in the core area but that could change with entire city blocks being made available with redevelopment efforts. Areas that have been cutoff by splintered streets are becoming prime property for high-density development, such as housing and retail.

5. Fine Arts Center or Future Library: The ImagineIf Library board of trustees is studying plans that call for building a new facility. One location being considered is the CHS property on Fourth Avenue East North across from Smith’s. CHS will relocate all of its facilities to the new industrial rail park and the former property will be transferred to Flathead County Economic Development Authority. Preliminary plans also encourage the creation of a fine arts center or convention center.

6. Connect Disjointed Streets: The railroad tracks have created disjointed streets throughout the heart of town, cutting off potential development and creating blighted or underutilized properties. By removing the tracks, the city plans to reconnect several streets that will improve transportation and open up an estimated 14 acres of underutilized land that will now be ripe for redevelopment.



“I’m proud to be a part of the history and future for one of the great loves of my life: Kalispell, Montana. It’s amazing to take part in creatively ushering in the renaissance of our very urban core, with the goals of blending historic with new, building density, vibrancy, and activity. This is a unique platform for proving small communities can impact the worldwide market — if we build appropriate and appealing access, incentives, infrastructure, and opportunity.”

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