Bellingham is a growing city. My goals are to ensure that growth is sustainable and benefits our community. At the request of City Council, I will be proposing a package of incentives to encourage the type of development we want to see, and where we want to see it. In addition, we are implementing several initiatives to support affordable housing city-wide.
One key strategy to preserve neighborhood character and accommodate anticipated growth in Bellingham has been to target areas throughout the city that could best absorb increased densities for development, in the form of “urban villages.” Urban villages are activity centers that provide pleasant living, shopping and working environments; strong pedestrian accessibility; adequate, well-located public spaces; a connected street system; and a balance of retail, office, residential and service uses. To date, six urban village plans have been adopted by the city, including Downtown, Old Town, the Waterfront, Fairhaven, Samish Way and the Fountain District.
Urban villages are important because they provide a variety of housing choices, they strengthen the market for area businesses and provide goods and services as well as jobs, and they promote responsible land patterns, fulfilling the Comprehensive Plan strategy.
But despite establishing a clear vision and development regulations for these areas, there have been mixed results with what has been constructed. In some cases, private investment has been significant. In others, the desired development has not happened. A number of factors influence the development of urban villages, and the recent recession has slowed progress.
In response to these issues, City Council requested that we analyze existing and potential incentives and provide a series of recommendations to achieve the commerce and housing objectives in the Comprehensive Plan.
To prepare these recommendations, staff compiled incentives currently in use by the city, along with a number of new incentives for consideration. Some recommended urban village incentives include:
• Creating a graduated B&O Tax credit for new businesses;
• Expanding multifamily tax exemptions;
• Reducing permit and utility hook-up fees;
• Improving the transparency of available transportation and school-impact fee reductions;
• Expedited permitting and specialized review teams.
In April and May, City Council will review these initial recommendations, and provide direction on which incentives to include. These will be analyzed in more detail, then brought forward to council individually for discussion, public input, review and potential adoption.
There are economic and in some cases regulatory challenges to constructing single- and multi-family housing that is affordable to both average wage-earners and low-income households. As a result , we continue to look at ways the city can improve regulations and encourage the private sector to build affordable housing.
Some actions currently underway include:
• Updating the city’s subdivision code to allow for better site design and provide clear and consistent review processes;
• Identifying appropriate changes to allow more flexibility in allowing accessory dwelling units, such as a small apartment above a family’s garage, where appropriate in the city;
• Replacing the city’s permitting software to improve internal accuracy, efficiency and service;
• Continuing to utilize Lean principles to create an even more efficient and clear permit process without reducing community involvement.
I’m excited to be moving forward on making Bellingham an even greater place to live and work. Bellingham has an outstanding quality of life that we are all proud of and want to preserve. That includes a strong economy where businesses can thrive and provide the kind of jobs, services and housing opportunities desired by the community. I believe these recommendations will demonstrate that our community will benefit from the investment in our urban villages and housing affordability and I am pleased to advance these initiatives over the coming weeks and months.