Morris Piha, a Bellevue developer who was the dominant property owner in downtown Bellingham from the early 1970s into the 1980s, died Tuesday, May 14, at the age of 79. A memorial service was held Friday in Seattle.
At one point, Piha's company owned about 25 buildings downtown, including the Bellingham National Bank building at Holly Street and Cornwall Avenue, the former J.C. Penney Co. and F.W. Woolworth buildings on Cornwall between Holly and Magnolia streets, and the Flatiron building at Bay and Prospect streets.
Piha and his investors also had considerable holdings in downtown Olympia.
"He had this undying belief in small-town America," said Jeff McClure, a Bellingham architect who worked with Piha. "He loved Bellingham. He loved coming up here."
Piha was a strong advocate for downtown at a time when talk of a regional mall in Skagit or Whatcom County filled the air.
"He was our hero for downtown," said Ken Hertz, Bellingham mayor from the mid-1970s to the early '80s.
Piha envisioned downtown Bellingham becoming the marketing center for Northwest Washington.
"This downtown has more character than any city in the state of Washington, bar none," he told a Bellingham Herald reporter in 1983.
In 1980, Piha organized a nonprofit corporation to help redevelop downtown. A priority was keeping J.C. Penney from relocating by providing space for the retail anchor to expand downtown.
However Piha's hopes suffered a fatal blow when the City Council voted in the mid-'80s to allow construction of Bellis Fair mall.
In the early '90s, Piha proposed that the Penney's building be remodeled into studio apartments, but that didn't come to fruition, either.
"The economics just didn't line up at that particular time," said McClure, who worked on the housing proposal.
Although Piha's downtown vision didn't materialize, his legacy lingers in the older buildings that he remodeled, including the Bellingham Hardware building on Holly Street and the Bellingham National Bank building, Hertz said.
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