Bellingham groups hope to make downtown pop with design contest

From plotting ways to improve streets to planning interactive artwork, creative thinkers could see their community-oriented ideas walk off the page early next year with seed money from groups hoping to make public spaces in downtown Bellingham more welcoming.

Through Jan. 30, Sustainable Connections, the city of Bellingham and several other partners are soliciting ideas for quick and easy ways to improve the city core through a “placemaking” contest called “Kapow!” Applications are available online at sustainableconnections.org.

Think of the contest as a “by-the-book” version of what one anonymous guerrilla artist did in 2011, when that person installed a rogue sculpture of a dancer, titled “Grace,” on a slab of slag near Taylor Dock.

The artist waited ’til the dead of night to install the metal statue at low tide, causing quite a stir with city administrators because the normal process of getting artwork approved by the Bellingham Arts Commission had been ignored. The city opted to leave the statue in place but warned that any other artwork popping up on public land would promptly be removed. The artist took the statue down a year later.

“We’re trying to provide an opportunity that otherwise might be unsanctioned,” said Rose Lathrop, green building and smart growth manager for Sustainable Connections. “We have great support at the city of Bellingham to do unique things downtown — they’re excited about creative and quirky things they can’t do themselves. ... I think there’s a lot of opportunity to continue to make Bellingham unique and maybe a little less subdued.”

The projects can vary widely, from event-based gatherings that will last a few hours to a day, to permanent interactive art pieces that will bring people together time and time again. The main goal is to find something quick and easy to do, Lathrop said.

“Everything is harder than you think, but these should be things we can put together within a matter of months, versus years,” she said.

In some cities, people have taken over parking spaces and turned them into parklets or put in playground equipment. In other places, creative seating and interactive art pieces have been constructed on parts of under-used roads or sidewalks. Some green-thumbed city-dwellers have reclaimed neglected patches of grass for guerrilla gardening, while others have painted crosswalks or bicycle symbols on the streets where they think bike lanes or pedestrian paths should go.

A jury of about six representatives from the competition’s partner agencies will narrow the list of applications and ask the best ideas to move forward with an in-depth application that will involve informational meetings, planning, and searches for resources.

Those top applicants will present their ideas to the public in the spring. Each of the top three winners, including the people’s choice “superhero,” will get at least $500 to implement their project, and could likely get much more, depending on how much money is raised and donated and what grants the projects might qualify for, Lathrop said.

The most important thing is to get those ideas on paper and to apply, she said.

“We’ve had a ton of people talk about what their ideas are,” Lathrop said. “They have to put it on paper and submit it so we can get those ideas big, small, ugly — we want ’em all.”

For more information, go to the Sustainable Connections website or contact Lathrop at rose@sconnect.org or 360-647-7093, ext. 107.