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Birchwood neighborhood looks ahead as it loses Albertsons

Signs proclaiming big discounts and an inventory blowout line the windows of the Birchwood neighborhood Albertsons grocery store Thursday, April 28, 2016. The store is closing May 7, leaving residents without a nearby grocery.
Signs proclaiming big discounts and an inventory blowout line the windows of the Birchwood neighborhood Albertsons grocery store Thursday, April 28, 2016. The store is closing May 7, leaving residents without a nearby grocery. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

As Birchwood adjusts to losing its grocery store, residents and city officials are looking for ways to help the neighborhood rebound.

The final day of Albertsons at 1650 Birchwood Ave. is Saturday, May 7, and it means the loss of about 66 jobs.

Along with the lost jobs, the neighborhood will lose its one major grocery store, with the nearest alternatives more than a mile away. That’s a challenge because many people in the neighborhood are in lower income brackets and walk to nearby businesses.

Bellingham City Councilwoman April Barker has been getting plenty of feedback about it from those who live in the neighborhood, which, according to a real estate listing for the Albertsons property, has an annual per capita income of $22,449 within a three-mile radius of the store.

“I’m hearing a lot of frustration and sadness about this,” Barker said. “There is also a lot of worry. We have so many families who are barely making it that need a nearby store.”

The 41,261-square-foot space is owned by Albertsons and available for lease. Barker said she was told by the listing agency Wallace Properties that there is a non-compete clause, meaning another grocery store would not be able to go into that space. A message left for Wallace Properties listing agent Scott Blankenship was not returned. Albertsons spokeswoman Sara Osborne said the company is diligently seeking a tenant for the space but will not comment about the leasing process.

Osborne added that the decision to close the store came after long and careful deliberation.

“This store was evaluated extensively and ultimately our business analysis indicated that we needed to cease operations of this underperforming Albertsons location in Bellingham,” Osborne said in an email. “This closure will also afford us the opportunity to invest more in surrounding stores to improve customer experience throughout the Bellingham region.”

Osborne said more than two dozen employees at the Birchwood Albertsons store have been offered positions at other locations. Albertsons owns the two Safeway stores in Whatcom County and is finalizing a deal to purchase 29 Haggen stores, including five in Whatcom County. Albertsons plans to keep the Haggen name on 14 of those stores, including those in Whatcom County.

If there is a non-compete clause in the Birchwood Albertsons space, it wouldn’t be an uncommon situation, said Erin Sundean, a Bellingham commercial real estate agent and owner of The Bedford Group. While not involved in this listing, he has seen this situation occur many times in the retail industry. If not a grocery store, he would expect the space to be of interest to discount retailers.

“The dynamic has shifted there over the years,” Sundean said, noting that years ago it was a vibrant retail area, attracting people from Ferndale and in the north part of the county who wanted to quickly get some shopping done by taking the Northwest Avenue freeway exit and avoiding downtown.

TAKING A NEW LOOK AT BIRCHWOOD

Prior to Albertsons announcing it was closing the Birchwood store, the neighborhood began working with Western Washington University urban planning students to come up with ideas to make the area vibrant again. The group of students presented a report of its findings at a neighborhood meeting March 15. The report, based on feedback from community members, emphasized giving the area a major facelift, adding parks and other public spaces as well as addressing safety concerns.

The students are studying the area’s zoning rules to see what can be done as well as talking to developers about potential costs, said Tammi Laninga, a Western professor guiding the class through the project. They also plan on meeting with the city to get feedback on the report. The students then will present their latest findings at 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 24, in Northwood Hall at 3240 Northwest Ave.

We can show support for out-of-box thinking by taking a look at things like zoning and mixed density

April Barker, Bellingham city councilwoman

One of the centerpieces to the students’ project is the Park Manor Shopping Center, which is home to Albertsons as well as several other businesses, including discount retailer Big Lots! Laninga said the students learned that many Birchwood residents are interested in seeing that center be more of a mixed-use area, such as adding residential units. Given the low vacancy rates in the city, there could be demand for that kind of project, she said.

Many residents also were interested in making the parking lot smaller, citing concerns about criminal activity in that area, particularly when businesses are closed. They also were interested in the idea of flex spaces, where a variety of activities can take place much like the Village Green in Fairhaven, which hosts events like farmers markets and movie showings.

Much of this area is private property, so any changes and money to pay for them would need to come from the property owners. The report’s goal is to come up with ideas to get the ball rolling, possibly catching the interest of city officials as they look for ways to improve the area, Laninga said.

Sundean said that for a neighborhood to have a successful makeover, it is important property owners are on board and businesses are interested in moving into the area. The adage “if you build it they will come” does not necessarily work in commercial real estate, with major improvements to retail centers still resulting in empty spaces, he said.

“I don’t think there is just one silver bullet,” Sundean said in reference to making a neighborhood more vibrant, adding that some ideas to improve an area may not pencil out economically.

Barker said many in the neighborhood were excited about the plans put together by the students. She’s hopeful they can lead to improvements in the area.

“We can show support for out-of-box thinking by taking a look at things like zoning and mixed density,” Barker said.

Laninga said it was also a great learning experience for the students. About 60 people showed up to the March meeting, providing constructive feedback that is helping with the final report.

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz

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