Downtown Bellingham plan expands high-density development

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 21, 2014 

New downtown apartments

Dustyn Bull, left, and Dylan Evanger, right, of Ridgeline Builders work on installing siding on a new apartment complex, Thursday, April 17, 2014 1000 block of Railroad Avenue. The two new apartment buildings will be a mix of studios, one and two bedroom apartments and a fourth building is planned to be built off Laurel St. in the fall, said local developer Rick Westrop. West View Real Estate is currently taking reservations for July and August move in dates.

MATT MCDONALD — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

BELLINGHAM - If the latest formal plan for the downtown comes to fruition, the neighborhood will see significant residential and commercial growth over the next decade or so. Downtown-style development also would filter into surrounding neighborhoods.

Planning that began three years ago and dubbed "myDowntown" to encourage public participation is in its final stage, coming before the City Council on Monday, June 23, for a public hearing. Council members will debate the draft plan in the following weeks before voting on it.

The public hearing will start shortly after 7 p.m. Monday at City Hall, 210 Lottie St.

The plan is designed to encourage development by streamlining and in some cases relaxing regulations, said Darby Cowles, senior planner with the city.

The prior downtown plan was begun in 1998 and completed four years later.

"We're hoping (the new plan) updates the vision for downtown. ... It's a lot different than it was in 1998," Cowles said. "The other main goal of the project will be looking at barriers and incentives to redevelopment. What's keeping people from being able to invest in buildings downtown?"

The plan looks ahead to when the city will have more people and need more stores. It allows for denser residential development and more types of businesses on the fringes of downtown, in the Lettered Streets, Sehome, Sunnyland and York neighborhoods. The new rules would allow for stores on corner lots in parts of the neighborhood where only offices are allowed now.

Developers would be encouraged to use existing buildings, so neighborhoods can maintain their historic character, Cowles said.

"We're actually very happy with the downtown proposal as it turned out," said Don Hilty-Jones, president of the York Neighborhood Association. "We didn't get everything that we wanted ... but we really feel that the planners have taken on more of our viewpoint toward historic preservation."

A broader incentive to developers is the proposal to reduce parking requirements at new developments. The plan adds a requirement to provide bicycle parking, similar to what's already in place in Fairhaven and in the new waterfront plan.

Planners sought to get away from a vehicle-first mentality downtown by prohibiting new drive-through businesses, such as car washes, banks and espresso stands. Existing businesses would not be affected.

The city worked intensively with surrounding neighborhoods, Cowles said, but neighbors' concerns lingered in the days before Monday's public hearing.

The Lettered Streets Neighborhood Association, in its June newsletter, said the association's board had a number of concerns, including parking, increased traffic and the disruption of the neighborhood's feel.

"The fundamental issue is that we want to build on and encourage our walkable, beautiful and historic neighborhood. It's why people choose to live here," the newsletter said.

The plan went beyond the usual considerations of height limits and population densities to look at public safety - specifically the behavior of homeless people and transients downtown.

"We heard from people, 'This is something that's keeping me from coming downtown,'" Cowles said.

The city is not waiting for the plan to be finished before making changes to Maritime Heritage Park, "to get more people using the park in positive ways," Cowles said. For years the park has been used mainly by transients.

"We're going to be tackling that starting now," Cowles said.

LEARN MORE

For more information, go online to cob.org/mydowntown.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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