Bellingham waterfront could be big and tall if market permits

This aerial view shows a rendering of the Bellingham waterfront if building were done to the maximum legal limit envisioned in an April 18, 2013 report by the city and the Port of Bellingham.
This aerial view shows a rendering of the Bellingham waterfront if building were done to the maximum legal limit envisioned in an April 18, 2013 report by the city and the Port of Bellingham. COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

BELLINGHAM - If the central waterfront is built up to the maximum extent that a proposed plan would allow, the city would have a skyline worthy of the name for the first time in history.

City staffers have presented the Bellingham Planning Commission with some eye-popping renderings of what the old Georgia-Pacific mill site area close to Old Town would look like, if developers want to invest there to the max, populating much of the site with 10- and 20-story buildings.

At first glance, that level of development seems far-fetched. Downtown's tallest building, Bellingham Towers at 15 stories, was completed in 1930. The next-tallest building, The Leopold at nine stories, dates from about the same period. Ambitious plans for downtown office and condo towers blossomed in the 2006-2007 real estate boom, but the boom went bust before any of those projects got off the drawing board.

Tara Sundin, the city's economic development manager, agreed that building up the central waterfront to the maximum allowable level seems improbable today. She also noted that city and port planners have given the Planning Commission some alternative depictions of a more modest waterfront renaissance, with mostly three- to five-story buildings of a size similar to what exists downtown today. That scale of development is more likely.

"We showed them (the commission) what the maximum would look like, but in reality we don't think every site will build out to the maximum," Sundin said.

The demand for real estate is the ultimate limit on building size. The city imposes no height limits for downtown buildings, but that hasn't translated into an imposing downtown skyline.

Even if the maximum amount of building occurs on the waterfront, the draft development regulations now before the planning commission contain restrictions to keep the scale of construction from becoming too massive and intimidating for adjoining property owners and pedestrians, Sundin said. Big buildings would have to be well-spaced and set back from the water's edge, the sidewalk and parks. The tallest buildings would be allowed only on parcels farthest from the edge of the bay.

Plans also call for preservation of view corridors, so that the bay would remain visible at most vantage points.

Building to the maximum would be desirable in some ways, Sundin said: Builders must provide extra amenities such as public plazas to earn the right to build to maximum size, and dense development in the core of the city is preferable to sprawling development pushing into agricultural areas.

In any event, Sundin encouraged the commission and the public to take the maximum scenario seriously, and ask the key question: "If that would happen, are we OK with that? Because it could happen."

If it does happen, it would take decades under any scenario imaginable. Sundin said the city's economic growth now generates an average of about 150,000 square feet of new construction every year in downtown, Fairhaven and Barkley.

If that rate is maintained, and half of the annual new growth were to occur on the waterfront, it would take many years to reach the 2.8 million square feet of buildings that could be constructed in the maximum-growth scenario for the central waterfront area between Old Town and the industrial area farther south, Sundin told the commission.

The Planning Commission is in the midst of a series of public meetings to review waterfront plans that emerged from years of confrontations and negotiations between Port of Bellingham and city officials. The commission's next waterfront discussion session is scheduled for 7 p.m. May 9 in City Council chambers at City Hall, 210 Lottie St.

The commission's job is to make recommendations on waterfront plans to City Council, which will hold its own public hearings before deciding whether to approve new zoning and building regulations for 237 waterfront acres. Most of that property is owned by the port and was formerly home to Georgia-Pacific Corp.'s pulp and tissue mill.

While the residential and commercial section of the property closest to downtown is getting the majority of the attention, most of the site likely will remain zoned for industrial uses.

The port has proposed maintaining industrial zoning on 170 of the 237 acres.

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