BELLINGHAM - City officials developed a downtown plan in a way that got the public involved from the beginning. The plan addresses building design, the parking crunch and pedestrian appeal. Proposals include higher parking rates and no more espresso stands in the downtown or areas near it.
So far, city Planning Commission meetings on the plan have been quiet and sparsely attended. City officials and their partners say that means the public has already been served by the early stages of the planning process, which began in 2011 and was branded as "myDowntown."
"People feel that their input has been heard and for the most part is consistent with the plan that has been drafted," said Patrick Hurley, executive director of the Downtown Bellingham Partnership, at a March 27 public hearing in front of the commission. "It is our sense that the public's eagerness to provide input and tinker with the plan has transitioned into an eagerness to begin implementation."
The commission shows no intention of shredding the plan and starting over, but it might do some of its own tinkering. After making recommendations, the commission will forward the proposal to the City Council for adoption.
At a meeting Thursday, April 3, some commissioners said city staff should have taken the opportunity to propose changes to the downtown's building design standards.
City planner Chris Koch said downtown developers often play it safe by submitting designs that were approved in the past. Planning Commissioner Jeff Brown said changes to the standards that encourage architectural experimentation could make "the difference between a provincial little city and a place that's really going forward."
Planners insisted the standards left plenty of room for creativity, but commissioners said that message wasn't coming across to developers.
"If Frank Lloyd Wright came through here in the '60s and saw your design review, what would happen?" Brown asked.
Another issue is parking. Some "hot spots" downtown are almost full at certain times, senior planner Darby Cowles told the commission on March 27. The Parkade, meanwhile, is underused.
Cowles indicated the Parkade suffers from an image problem. Consultants have begun working with city staff to propose a redesign.
The structure's name itself is suspect, Cowles said. She has taken to calling it the Commercial Avenue Parking Garage.
"No one knows what a Parkade is," Cowles said.
As for those hot spots, staff proposed raising parking rates in those places. The idea rankled one planning commissioner.
"You're going to take those areas and raise the parking prices, when we want more people to come downtown?" commissioner Steve Crooks said. "It sounds like you're trying to soak people."
Some of the parking pressure might be relieved if another of the plan's goals is met. City staff want to make not only the downtown but the entryways leading into it - State Street, Holly Street and Grand Avenue by the County Courthouse - more pedestrian-friendly. One proposal is to prohibit new espresso stands, banks and other businesses with drive-throughs. The thinking is that drive-throughs impede pedestrian flow.
The extent of the drive-through ban took several commissioners by surprise, and they weren't sure they liked it.
"There's going to be a lot of auto use in that surrounding area," Brown said.
The next commission meeting on the downtown plan is at 7 p.m. April 17 at City Hall, 210 Lottie St. Commissioners will discuss crime and parking, along with a proposal to make downtown a national historic district.