City Commission scheduled to set public hearing on new aquatic center during April 20 meeting

(Cover photo is rendering courtesy LPW Architecture)

City Commissioners will consider a conditional use permit, aggregating parcels and vacating rights of way related to the planned Aim High Big Sky aquatics and recreation center in Lions Park.

The actions will be considered on first reading and commissioners will be asked to set a public hearing for May 18.

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.

During the April 20 meeting, commissioners will also be asked to set a second reading for May 4 for an ordinance establishing authority to levy assessments to pay costs of the city’s park maintenance district including bonds for the design, construction and furnishing of the aquatic center.

The city will be issuing revenue bonds to cover the city’s $10 million of the project and the resolution authorizing their issuance and fixing the terms and conditions will also be presented at the May 4 meeting.

Funding the aquatic center with park district funds was already an allowable use, but the ordinance is a needed formal step for bonding against the district, according to the city’s bond counsel.

City planning board unanimously recommends permit approval for aquatic 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, design team update neighborhood on aquatics facility plans

The plan is to build the 44,943 square-foot, two-level 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.

Lions Park was established as a city park in 1952 and according to a park system inventory prepared by the city clerk and the city engineers office in 1961, Lions Park was tentatively planned to have a swimming pool, according to the city staff report.

The proposed aquatics and recreation center would include a lap pool, recreation pool with zero depth entry, a full size gym with two cross courts, child watch area, multi-purpose rooms, a party room, a fitness area with a walking track.

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 park is zoned Parks and Open Space and in that district, a conditional use permit is required to allow an “indoor sports and recreation” land use, such as the aquatics center. Each zoning district in the city includes uses that are permitted outright, prohibited, or conditionally permitted through a public review process. The zoning districts and allowable uses are all listed in Title 17, Chapter 20 of city code.

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 during the March 23 planning board meeting that 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.

According to the staff report for the April 20 City Commission meeting, the design team and city staff met with MDT to discuss access from 10th Avenue South and “MDT concerns about direct access to 10th Avenue South prohibited an in-depth analysis of modifications to 10th Avenue South that would have allowed such access. The additional impact to the park was not preferred by the city.”

The main access will come from 29th Street South, at 9th Avenue South, and there will be two secondary access points that align with the alleys to the north and south of 9th Avenue South, according to the staff report.

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.

Doug Mahlum, an owner of the Peak, said during the March 23 meeting 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.”

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

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

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