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Centering the Pedestrian Experience in the Downtown Core

Kalispell, Montana | Population: 23,212 (2017)

With Glacier National Park to its northeast and Flathead Lake to its south, Kalispell, Mont., sits between some of the most incredible natural scenery in the world. And, as the largest city in northwest Montana, Kalispell also acts as the county seat and commercial center, serving millions of visitors and locals every year. With its natural assets and commercial amenities, Kalispell’s downtown core is uniquely positioned for innovative economic development opportunity — as long as it can get people to stay a while.

Incorporated in 1892 as a railroad town, Kalispell’s railroad infrastructure has long been an important feature in the appearance of its downtown core. In the past few decades, however, the current rail and street configuration has increasingly restricted north-south traffic, causing congestion during the tourist-heavy summer months and created physical barriers that divide the downtown core and make it difficult for pedestrians to move through safely and easily.

In the last decade, Kalispell leaders have realized that redevelopment of the rail corridor is crucial to developing new and supporting ongoing entrepreneurship opportunities, managing traffic, and creating a more walkable, nature-focused downtown core.

Since 2012, the City of Kalispell and the Flathead County Economic Development Authority (FCEDA) — with contribution from the Kalispell Downtown Association — have led the Core and Rail Redevelopment and Trail project, a multiyear, $21 million comprehensive transportation and economic development project that includes: downtown core area redevelopment, downtown trail & Complete Streets plan, and Glacier Rail Park, a rail-served industrial park outside of the downtown.

Sheets of photos with sticky notes marking various aspects

Credit: Kalispell Core and Rail Trail

Community Engagement

In the development of the Kalispell Downtown and Complete Streets plan, the City of Kalispell and FCEDA emphasized the need for intentional community engagement and created varied, meaningful means to facilitate that engagement. Due to their efforts, over 1000 Kalispell and Flathead County residents, business owners, and landowners participated throughout the summer and fall of 2018, evaluating design concepts and providing input for strategy and implementation.

Varied means of engagement and consistent communication helped make their community engagement efforts successful. Throughout the summer and fall, project leaders, design and planning consultants, and the Trail Crew”, a 26-member citizen advisory group, conducted surveys, met with stakeholders individually and in groups, led railcar tours of the corridor, and hosted evening meetings at various downtown businesses and civic buildings.

Project leaders also hosted a week-long, staffed open house charette in the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce conference room, where community members could come any time during open hours to learn more about the various design concepts and provide input. This deep dive charette even extended to other local hot spots, including the library, the mall, and two downtown breweries.

Engagement continued post-charette, with meetings and presentations at 19 community events throughout the summer and fall, as well as six design revision meetings with the Trail Crew project advisory committee. The Trail and Complete Streets Concept Design Report was presented to the public in March 2019.

Components of the Kalispell and Complete Streets Plan

Funded by a $10 million US Department of Transportation TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant, the Kalispell Downtown and Complete Streets plan focuses creating an inviting, walkable downtown core area, which is about 2 miles east-west and about 0.5 miles north-south. The plan includes several elements: the creation of a two-mile urban trail, expanding the wayfinding system, one new Complete Street, development of high-density housing, and in the future, planning the redevelopment of 44 acres of dispersed vacant or blighted property, including brownfields.

Even more than the other components, the new urban trail system and the comprehensive wayfinding system center the pedestrian experience in the downtown core.

Committee members putting on fluorescent yellow vests while standing on a downtown sidewalk

Credit: Kalispell Core and Rail Trail

Wayfinding

In 2011, a community survey found that Kalispell community members wanted the city to have better directional signage for car drivers and pedestrians. In response, the Kalispell Convention and Visitors Bureau, the City of Kalispell, and the Kalispell Downtown Association/​BID partnered to fundraise for a comprehensive wayfinding plan for the downtown core area and the greater city.

In 2016, after raising $200,000 from a wide variety of sources – NPS Preserve America Grant, Montana Department of Commerce, Kalispell CVB, Kalispell Downtown Association/​BID, Flathead Rotary Community Foundation, the City of Kalispell, Hockaday Museum of Art, Museum at Central School, and the Conrad Mansion Museum — the City installed 68 new signs around the city, directing drivers and pedestrians to major attractions like museums, parks, and event centers. Of the 68 new signs, 32 designate Kalispell’s historic downtown and direct pedestrians and drivers to the Visitor Center as well as to downtown museums and Woodland Park.

In the Kalispell Downtown and Complete Streets plan, wayfinding signage in and out of the urban trail system will be incorporated into the greater Kalispell wayfinding plan.

Urban Trail System

Key to the Kalispell Downtown and Complete Streets plan’s focus on creating a walkable, inviting downtown core is the creation of a 2‑mile long urban trail system. The old railroad tracks that have physically divided the area have been removed to make way for the trail system, and to restore the original street grids, facilitate better traffic flow, and improve downtown’s walkability and bikeability.

The urban trail system is designed to increase safe passage for non-motorized transportation, connecting walkers and bikers to the downtown’s parks, businesses, and other amenities on a paved path through the downtown core area. Wayfinding signage will encourage movement through, in, and out of the trail, encouraging the economic vitality of downtown Kalispell by directing pedestrians and other trail users to businesses, restaurants, and breweries near the trail.

In addition, public art and natural plantings play a key role in the trail’s design and connection to Kalispell’s history and culture. Artists will use old rail ties, other former railroad materials, and metal in the creation of the signage, bridges, and railings. While the trail connects extensively to the downtown commercial corridor, trees, grasses, and other natural plantings will create a peaceful environment for pedestrians and other trail users to enjoy as they move through, in, and out of the downtown core.

Read more details about Kalispell’s Core and Rail Redevelopment and Trail Project here.