The Bellingham Public Development Authority last year sold property at 1100 Cornwall Ave. to Catholic Community Services for housing, paid for by revenue generated by parking meters and at a net loss of at least $300,000. As a result, this has taken away an ideal site for a downtown Bellingham office building and parking structure. We now should start talking about protecting parking revenue from future abuses by establishing a parking authority for downtown Bellingham.
This would be different from the present Bellingham City Council's transportation committee. It would only be concerned with the collection and administration of the funds generated from the parking meters, the parking facilities and the fines collected from the tickets. Also, and more importantly, a parking authority would seek opportunities to use these funds specifically for creating parking facilities.
The importance of directing these funds to assist in private investment cannot be over stated. With the exception of the Whatcom County Courthouse built in the early 1930s with additions in 1972 and 1991, the rehabilitation of the former Bon Marche department store into the Bellingham Crown Plaza building, the conversion of the former Sears store to an office complex and the remodeling of the building now occupied by Logos Bible Software - all done in the early 1990s - there has been no new office building of any significant size added to downtown Bellingham since the Herald Building was constructed in 1926.
Meanwhile, dozens of five-story office towers and most of the major banks have been built in suburban areas, not downtown Bellingham, over the past 20 years. This has happened because the upzoning of land to commercial use has allowed developers to have unlimited parking lots surrounding their new office structures.
Most of the major tenants for these buildings were recruited from the downtown core; not because they wanted to move away from downtown to a mall, but because they needed a larger class A office building and the private developer who moved them out of downtown didn't have to build a attached parking structure to accommodate the minimum of two parking stalls per 1,000 square feet required for a modern office building. These parking structures need to be built downtown with the help of these funds generated from the parking meters if we are ever to see larger office tenants return to downtown
I'm proposing a five-member committee consisting of members of the business community, such as Realtors, merchants, developers and other business-related individuals. This committee would oversee the collection and all other aspects of downtown parking income.
Any transportation tax collected from new construction in the downtown would go into this fund. The people writing the tickets and the people adjudicating the tickets will be employees of the parking authority. This parking authority couldn't purchase, sell or build any property or structure without the consent of the Bellingham City Council.
Perhaps 5 or 10 percent of these funds could be diverted to the City Council's transportation committee to help alternative forms of transportation to the downtown.
But most of the funds from the net income stream of this parking authority would be harnessed to generate bonds that subsidize parking structures directly related to new construction.
This plan does not need any new taxes or any money coming in from other sources outside the downtown. This would be direct aid to downtown coming from funds generated downtown.
The people who work in offices have a direct economic influence on all the other shops, restaurants and cultural interests in downtown. During creation of the downtown master plan in the late 1990s, traffic and parking consultants strongly suggest forming a parking authority like this.
If a parking authority had been created then, we wouldn't have the present problem with the lot on Cornwall Avenue and the loss of at least $300,000 would not have happened. Instead of the present mess, we might have a 10-story office tower on that site. This proposed parking authority would be the organization to make downtown Bellingham the center of business for Whatcom County as the early town fathers envisioned.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kane Hall, a lifelong Bellingham resident, is founder of the Downtown Community Safety Alliance and actively involved in the City Center Master Plan Update. He also is a property manager at Daylight Properties, which manages commercial and residential properties in downtown Bellingham.