BELLINGHAM - A new apartment building, intended to bring stability to Bellingham's worst homeless cases, has received local backing and is likely to be built - even as some local leaders worry the project would hurt downtown business.
If the project is fully funded and built, the Catholic Housing Services project at 1100 Cornwall Ave. would have 100 units - from rental apartments for long-term homeless people to affordable condominiums sold to low-income families.
Construction of phase 1 could begin in September 2013 and would have 42 rental units: 20 for chronically homeless people, and 22 for people who need less intensive support. Almost two thirds of chronically homeless people - those without a home for more than a year - have a mental illness, according to Catholic Housing Services.
The nearly one-acre space on Cornwall is a parking lot now. The City Council agreed to sell it to Catholic Housing Services in December 2011 for $1.18 million. That deal closed on Tuesday, July 3.
Steve Powers, division director of Catholic Housing Services, is optimistic about securing all the grants needed to complete the $9 million construction project. Applications for larger state and federal grants were strengthened by local financial support. Bellingham committed $315,000 to the project, and the Whatcom County Council voted on June 19 to give another $550,000.
The project is not without its detractors. The block is a prime place to expand downtown Bellingham's retail area.
County Council member Barbara Brenner cast the lone "no" vote for the county grant. She was opposed to siting the project on high-cost land downtown.
"This will have a major impact on the businesses around there. I appreciate what's trying to be done here, but I don't see this as the right way to do it," Brenner said.
Bellingham City Council member Cathy Lehman's concerns about the project have been both economic and personal, but she said she has gotten over worrying about her own safety.
The apartments will have around-the-clock staff to provide both safety and support, if funding allows. Similar housing projects have reduced the number of encounters between the formerly homeless residents and law enforcement, according to Catholic Housing Services.
"The more I learn about the project the more I agree, Catholic Housing Services know what they're doing," Lehman said. "If it can be done well, and it makes these people's lives more productive and safe ... I feel like I'm probably actually safer."
But her concerns about the neighborhood's business prospects remain. Lehman is meeting with businesses on the block, including Boundary Bay Brewing Co. and Kulshan Cycles, so they can give unified input into what the building should include.
"Ideally we'll have retail on the ground floor. The last thing you want to do is create a dead zone in the middle of a commercial block," Lehman said.
Powers said Catholic Housing Services needs to consider which commercial tenant would fit in best with the housing project, and it helps that an organization has already shown interest. The Opportunity Council, a nonprofit serving homeless and low-income people, is considering the space.
"That's just an ace in the hole for us as developers, and it will serve the clients in our building," Powers said.
Lehman will continue to advocate for retail tenants that would fit in with the neighborhood at large - something Powers said is still possible in phase 2, which could be complete in 2016 or 2017.
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