Bellingham waterfront plan heads to full council despite debate about height limits

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 30, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - After a lively discussion of how high new waterfront buildings should be, the three members of the City Council's waterfront committee have agreed to pass a complex set of waterfront plans on to the full council for further discussion.

Committee member Jack Weiss still has some serious reservations about the waterfront plans thrashed out during years of wrangling between city and Port of Bellingham officials. But at this point, it looks as though a majority of council members are likely to approve the plans before them, although not without more rounds of discussion and revision.

At a Monday, Sept. 30, committee session, Weiss argued that the building height limits in the plan are too generous. On a portion of the site nearest downtown Bellingham, buildings could be as high as 200 feet.

Weiss said he has heard negative reactions to that from others in the community. He charged that the plans would create what he called "Bellevue density" on the waterfront.

"It's not scaled to what the typical person who lives in Bellingham would think we should have for height limits," Weiss said.

But the other committee members, Chairman Terry Bornemann and Cathy Lehman, saw it differently.

Bornemann noted that it is unlikely that a lot of tall buildings will be built in the area in the decades ahead, whatever development regulations are in place. There are no height limits of any kind downtown, Bornemann said, but broader economic forces have provided limits in reality.

"If I thought we would have a wall of 200-foot buildings I might be alarmed at that," Bornemann said.

Up to a point, bigger buildings on the waterfront will help the city handle population growth, he added.

"I would love it if we did get some of that higher density," Bornemann said. "I think we need the density and we need the different options down there. ... By providing that density there, it also takes pressure off the other parts of the city that we have tried to preserve."

Lehman noted that the complex building height regulations in the proposed waterfront plans rule out a solid wall of buildings. Developers would need to keep some of their property as open plaza-type space to qualify for maximum building heights, and tall buildings need to be set back from the sidewalk.

"I don't see any reason why we wouldn't want to cluster development in the core, radiating out from where people want to be," Lehman said.

Council member Michael Lilliquist - not a waterfront committee member - noted that computer-generated renderings of maximum waterfront development under current proposals do look dramatic. "This may look either thrilling to people or frightening to people," Lilliquist said.

Either way, Lilliquist said, there is probably no more than a remote chance that the waterfront will ever see maximum development even after many years.

Weiss said he would bring up the issue of building heights again when the plans come before the full council.

Those plans will guide the long-term future of 237 mostly empty waterfront acres, much of which is owned by the Port of Bellingham. The city has the legal authority to draft a land use plan for the area, similar to the neighborhood plans already in place elsewhere in the city. After years of on-and-off discussions with port officials, the council is now moving to put finishing touches on the plans, and the council could take a final vote on them before the end of 2013.

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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