City planning board unanimously recommends permit approval for aquatic center in Lions Park

(Cover photo is rendering courtesy LPW Architecture)

The city planning board voted unanimously during its March 23 meeting to recommend approval of a conditional use permit to allow the planned indoor aquatics/recreation center in Lions Park.

The city received a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense for the estimated $20 million project and plans to use park maintenance district funds to bond the city’s $10 million match.

City continuing plans on aquatics center for Lions Park

The plan is to build the 44,943 square-foot aquatics and recreation center in the section of Lions Park that is currently a parking lot to disrupt as few existing amenities as possible.

The park is about 14 acres and the aquatics facility and parking would take up about 4 acres, according to city Park and Recreation staff.

The design team, which includes LPW Architects and TD&H Engineering, is working on site plans, building designs and other specifics now and plans to start construction contracts this summer to begin moving dirt by Sept. 28, as required by the federal grant program.

Park Board supports aquatics center move to Lions; discusses visitor center lease, legislation that could impact park maintenance district

The design team and city staff have been updating neighborhood councils about the project and getting feedback, and City Manager Greg Doyon provides updates during City Commission meetings.

Traffic has been mentioned as a concern during neighborhood council meetings and again during the March 23 planning board meeting.

City staff said they’re conducting traffic counts now and will do so again once the facility is built to determine if there’s a significant impact and what traffic control measures are needed.

Several residents near Lions Park had asked that the city and design team consider access off 10th Avenue South instead of using the existing park access of 29th Street.

Jana Cooper of TD&H Engineering said the team met with the Montana Department of Transportation about an access off 10th and they were open to it, but had concerns about safety, additional storm water and said they have no current plans to improve the intersection at 29th Street.

Cooper said that it’s also a timing issue, since construction on the aquatics facility has to start in September, under the grant requirements, and the process to get MDT approval for access on 10th is more extensive.

She said the plan for now is to build the facility and the question of access off 10th can be revisited in the future.

Access off 10th Avenue South would also take up more parkland and add infrastructure costs, Cooper said.

The current site plan also include an access point off 8th Avenue South, primarily because public safety requires secondary access.

The team looked at closing that access point, but it was not recommended by Great Falls Fire Rescue.

Other residents asked about the speed limit and said there are crashed on 29th Street because of speeding.

The city’s senior transportation planned conducted a full traffic analysis, which is available on the city website, but the recommendations from the city staff report are:

  • Provision of bicycle parking and/or secure bicycle storage is recommended to reduce the number of vehicular trips.
  • Full connections between the project and the trails in Lions Park should be made and designed for direct and safe pedestrian and bicycle travel. This is especially important since the existing parking lot for park users would be replaced by parking adjacent to the center.
  • Traffic control at nearby intersections should be reviewed and, if warrants are met, installed soon after opening of the center, especially at the 8th Avenue South and 29th Street South and at 9th Avenue South and 29th Street South intersections. Given the projected increase in traffic on 29th Street South, it is likely that traffic control at these intersections could be necessary after opening of the center. Intersections further to the east along 9th Avenue South should also be monitored for future traffic control needs, if warranted.
  • Full ADA curb ramps at all corners surrounding Lions Park should be installed as soon as monies are available to provide safe and convenient pedestrian connections for all users.
  • After opening of the center, prohibition of parking on one or both sides of portions of 29th Street South may be warranted due to the narrowness of the street. Traffic movements along this street segment should be reviewed soon after opening.
  • Safety and delays at 29th Street South and 10th Avenue South should be monitored. If future conditions warrant the need, signalization may be an option that could be pursued with the Montana Department of Transportation.

Bob Alfred, owner of the building on the corner that houses a dental office and his wife’s State Farm office, said he had discussed his traffic and alley access concerns with city staff and was encouraged by the additional lighting and activity that would come with the facility to address crime and safety in the area.

Doug Mahlum, an owner of the Peak, said that the city needs to replace the Natatorium but had questions about the funding and said the aquatics center wasn’t included in the 2016 Park and Recreation Master Plan, which identified more than $12 million in needed improvements. The city established, and voters approved, the park maintenance district as an additional assessment to fund those repairs. The park maintenance district is $1.5 million for the first three years and the city is going into year three now.

The master plan did identify a joint indoor aquatics and recreation center as a need and city staff have discussed the concept since at least 2016 when a former Park and Recreation director said it would be a better model than the city’s aging Nat and separate rec center.

An indoor aquatics/recreation center is identified in the visionary projects section, for an estimated $20 million, and the plan reads, “recommendations described in this section represents the complete set of services and facilities desired by the community. It is fiscally unconstrained but can help provide policy guidance by illustrating the ultimate goals of the community, and by providing a long-range look to address future needs and deficiencies. The following new development and redevelopment projects have been identified as relevant to the interests and needs of the community and are relevant to the city’s focus because they feature a high probability of success.”

Other than board chair Dave Bertleson saying that the project was good for the city, there was no board discussion before the unanimous vote to recommend approval.

The City Commission will next review and make the final decision on the conditional use permit.

For background on the project, please see our previous coverage:

City to receive $20 million in COVID funds; aquatic center plan updated; GFPD chief replacement process underway; Civic Center facade contract pushed to April 6

City, design team update neighborhood on aquatics facility plans

City continuing plans on aquatics center for Lions Park

Park Board supports aquatics center move to Lions; discusses visitor center lease, legislation that could impact park maintenance district

City proposes Lions Park as new site for aquatics facility

City pushes hearing on land swap for aquatics facility to Jan. 19

City, GFPS land swap on commission agenda for aquatics facility

City looking into options to adjust aquatics center due to high foundation costs

City awards aquatics facility design contract to LPW/TD&H

City Commission set to select design for aquatics facility on Oct. 13

City received 10 proposals for aquatics center design; will interview top 3

Resolution related to financing joint indoor aquatics center on Oct. 6 Commission agenda

City has been awarded $10 million grant for indoor aquatics facility

City, GFPS planning land swap for aquatics facility, parking

City, GFPS discussing possible parkland swap for proposed aquatics facility

City seeking proposals for aquatics project

Great Falls one of 16 invited to formally apply for DOD grant for new aquatics facility

Commission votes to apply for $10 million federal grant for joint aquatics facility; use park district funds to match

City, Malmstrom partnering for grant for potential new, joint indoor aquatics facility