BELLINGHAM - A Catholic Housing Services plan to build apartments for homeless and low-income people in the downtown area drew opponents and supporters to a meeting Tuesday, Aug. 21, that was organized so the community could provide input and ask questions.
About 120 people showed up at the Spark Museum to hear about the first phase of the proposal, which would entail building a 42-unit complex at 1100 Cornwall Ave.
Of the 42 units, 20 would be reserved for the chronically homeless, a challenging population to help. Some of them are expected to be addicted to drugs, and a majority likely would have a mental illness.
They would receive intensive support in a building with around-the-clock reception, cameras throughout and security staff, said Greg Winter, director of the Homeless Service Center at Opportunity Council and chairman of the Whatcom Coalition to End Homelessness.
Winter, along with other members of a panel that included representatives of Catholic Housing Services, provided the context for the project and how Catholic Housing Services came to be involved.
"Projects such as the one proposed on Cornwall are needed to provide service-enriched housing so that we can get more people who have significant disabilities off the street," Winter said. Providing the homeless with stable housing also would benefit the community by reducing crime while helping mentally ill homeless who are themselves victims of crimes, he added.
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, less than the $1.53 million the city paid for it in 2008 with the idea of developing it into a parking garage. The millions needed for that project didn't materialize.
Jim Long, executive director of the Bellingham Public Development Authority, has said the city eventually would make up the difference via taxes and development fees that would be collected once the property goes back on the tax rolls.
Plans for the second phase include affordable housing, a commercial space and parking.
Opponents of the project said they supported the idea of helping the homeless, but said downtown already has a concentration of subsidized housing and raised a number of concerns about the harm that could be done to downtown businesses.
Catholic Housing Services has three buildings in the area - Washington Grocery Building, Kateri Court and Mount Baker Apartments.
The owners of Kulshan Cycles, which is next to Kateri Court, expressed frustration at Catholic Housing Services' plans, saying the organization was "completely incapable of managing their properties."
"I think you have lost sight of other populations in Bellingham," co-owner Kae Moe said. "This project will be a black hole for downtown."
She cited concerns about Kateri Court residents loitering, smoking and otherwise interfering with her business. While these activities aren't enough to call police, she said that together they created an unwelcome atmosphere for customers.
Scot Casey, co-owner of the Black Drop Coffee House, a business located in the same building as the Mount Baker Apartments, supported the proposed housing project.
He said those living in the Mount Baker Apartments are among the core of his customers.
"We have people who treat our shop as a second home," Casey said, adding that he supported a "housing project that treats these people with respect and dignity."
Still other business owners and downtown residents wondered why the city sold a piece of property that was designated for much-needed parking.
Critics want the $9 million project scrapped or at least slowed down, although Catholic Housing Services has said the apartments are expected to become available in 2014.
State and federal governments should come through with the bulk of funding, and groundbreaking could occur in September 2013, according to Steve Powers, division director of Catholic Housing Services.
Reach KIE RELYEA at email@example.com or call 715-2234.