A key downtown building that has sat mostly empty for 30 years may finally be refurbished through a partnership between two local developers and the city.
On Monday afternoon city officials announced it is considering a public-private proposal to buy and redevelop the former JC Penney building at 1314 Cornwall Ave. The plan would have the city purchase the land for $2.1 million, then enter into a long-term lease with local architect Jeff McClure and developer Jeff Kochman.
The developers would spend around $12 million on a major renovation that would add two floors and convert the building into a mixed-used structure. It will have between 50 to 90 market-rate apartment units and 5,800 square feet of ground-floor retail or office space. The investment would include purchasing the building for $712,500, according to city documents, making the total purchase of the property around $2.8 million.
McClure and Kochman will have the option to eventually purchase the land from the city. If the developers don’t purchase the land, the city would receive lease payments to get back the investment, according to the documents.
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The renovation would also include underground parking and a courtyard.
The proposed project will be discussed at a public hearing on Sept. 24 and the council is expected to vote on the project during the Oct. 8 City Council meeting.
If approved and the deal closes as scheduled, construction would probably start next spring and take about a year to complete, said McClure, a principal at RMC Architects. The new building will be known as the Dock Street Flats — a tip of the hat to the original street name.
Dock Street was later changed to Cornwall in honor of Pierre Barlow Cornwall, an investor in several Bellingham industries, according to city documents.
The potential seller of the building is Whatcom Center LLC, which is managed by Bruce Tolchin. Bruce Tolchin is the brother of Doug Tolchin, who has managed several key downtown Bellingham buildings, including this one, since the mid-1990s. Attempts to reach Bruce or Doug Tolchin for this article were unsuccessful.
For longtime residents, finally seeing something happen in what was once known as the heart of Bellingham’s downtown is welcome news. Alice Clark, who moved to Bellingham in 1980 and remembers taking her daughter to JC Penney and Woolworth’s next door, said she had trouble containing herself when she heard the news.
“It’s a game-changer,” said Clark, who is the executive director for the Downtown Bellingham Partnership. “I can’t express verbally how big this is.”
Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville said getting to this point has been years in the making and a key piece to further revitalizing the downtown core. This is the last major vacant building left in the downtown core and would complete a revitalization plan that’s been in place for decades.
“More jobs and more housing is exactly what we need to continue the positive momentum that is building in our city center,” Linville said.
In the partnership with the city, McClure said it’s a similar deal to when he and Kochman teamed up with the city to create the Marketplace Building on the corner of Railroad Avenue and Holly Street, completed in 2003. That spot was formerly home to the Mason Building before it burned down in 1994. It became derisively known as “the pit” and was occupied by protestors for a time in the spring of 2001. The 40 residential units there have had very low vacancy in the past 15 years, McClure said.
Kochman, former CEO of Barkley Company, said they approached the city as a possible partner because of the economics of the project. To accomplish what they wanted to do, the numbers didn’t pencil out without help from an entity like the city, he said.
The building, which was specially designed as a department store and opened in 1960, will have parts of it selectively removed, creating a u-shape structure with much of the building facing Cornwall Avenue. A courtyard will be inside the “u,” giving the developers a chance to add windows to bring natural light to the apartments.
McClure said the construction methods during the 1950s created a building where the basic infrastructure remains in very good shape. The remodel is a more sustainable way of achieving their goal, rather than hauling material away to a landfill, McClure said.
The apartments will vary in size from micro-units to two-bedroom options, which should provide a variety of rent rates and a good mix of tenants, McClure said.
McClure has long history of revitalizing old commercial sites. That includes the Waples Mercantile Building in Lynden, completed in 2015, that is now a hotel with several retail tenants. McClure is currently involved in revamping the landmark Armory building near Western Washington University. He is also working with the Bellingham Housing Authority on redeveloping the former Aloha Motel site on Samish Way.
When the Tolchin family purchased the building in 1998 for $1.05 million, it was one of several it bought along Cornwall and the plan was to revitalize downtown Bellingham, which was struggling after Bellis Fair had opened 10 years earlier. The opening of the mall lured many large retailers out of downtown and the city struggled to fill those spaces.
Doug Tolchin announced several different plans over the years for the former JC Penney building, including a public marketplace format and remodeling the building for condominiums, but those projects never materialized. The building has had several seasonal tenants over the years, as well as a few retail tenants for short periods of time, but not an anchor tenant.
In 2001, Tolchin nearly lost the building to foreclosure, according to The Bellingham Herald archives.
Clark said it is such a big building that it would be an overwhelming project for most people. That’s why a public-private partnership is a good solution.
“That was the key that unlocked the door,” Clark said, referring to the public-private partnership.
Even before it became home to JC Penney in the 1950s, that spot on Cornwall Avenue played a key role in the downtown district.
In 1902 the Beck Theatre opened and by 1915 the upper balcony was replaced by a projection booth and the name was changed to American Theatre, according to the website historylink.org.
When it first opened in 1902, the theater had seats for 2,200 people, according to the website. It was remodeled in 1938, adding an art deco-style sign made of rose-colored glass, according to Jeff Jewell, a research technician of the photo archives at the Whatcom Museum.
For a time it shared the same prestige as the Mt. Baker Theatre by showing first-run blockbuster shows, but in the 1950s the rise of television seriously eroded ticket sales at downtown theaters, Jewell said. The American Theatre’s last showing was in 1958 and the building was torn down in 1959.
Clark, of the Downtown Bellingham Partnership, believes that it will once again become a vibrant part of the city’s downtown core.
“This was the heart of the city and it has the potential to come back as the heart,” Clark said.