Dean Kahn

How the threat of Bellis Fair mall led to the greening of downtown Bellingham

The next time you’re stuck in traffic by Bellis Fair, take comfort in this thought: The threat of a mall decades ago prompted Bellingham to make downtown more pleasant for shoppers, workers, drivers, and pedestrians.

The most visible result of that effort? Hundreds of street trees now grace downtown.

Before the improvements, downtown was “just concrete, and streets that were substandard,” said Ken Hertz, Bellingham mayor from 1976 to 1982. “There’s a dramatic, dramatic change in what downtown looks like.”

With talk of a regional mall in the air in the early 1980s, property owners downtown raised $1.7 million to extend sidewalks at intersections, add mid-block pedestrian crossings, install bollards, and plant more than 430 street trees. The work was done in 1982, six years before Bellis Fair opened for business.

Before the changes, street trees were a rare sight downtown. Now, those hundreds of trees add a lush feel and a touch of autumn color to downtown, along with shade, shelter for birds, cleaner air, and reduced runoff.

“You’ve got to have a decent environment,” Hertz said. “You’ve got to soften the downtown.”

Trees now cover about 15 percent of downtown from Bay and Prospect streets on the west to Railroad Avenue on the east, and from Champion Street on the north to Chestnut Street on the south. The percentage would be larger but some areas, such as bridges, and sidewalks with open space underneath, can’t have ground trees.

If you see a stretch of downtown without street trees, there’s a good chance an adjacent basement extends under the sidewalk.

There used to be nearly 150 large sidewalk planters downtown that merchants paid for in the mid-1960s, but most have been removed. The stone planters tended to leak and be hit by cars, were often too small for the trees, and were expensive to maintain because they had to be watered by hand.

There’s a mix of trees downtown, for variety that’s pleasing to the eye and so a disease or pest won’t eradicate all of them at once, said Steve Nordeen, grounds supervisor for Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department. Varieties include honey locust on Cornwall; red maple on Champion, Commercial and Magnolia; other maples on Railroad; London plane on Cornwall and Holly; and katsura on State.

Railroad Avenue from Chestnut to Magnolia has a bounty of trees, nearly 100 in total, thanks to extra ones in the median strip. Cornwall averages nearly 30 trees per block, including four London planes mid-block near Limelight Cinema with branches that meet to form a leafy lid over the avenue.

To prevent trees from buckling sidewalks, plastic shields called “root deflectors” sometimes are placed in the ground so the roots reach down deep before they spread in search of water.

The parks department prunes the trees away from buildings and signs, replaces vandalized ones, and selects new ones that grow well in a downtown setting.

“Not too big, not too small,” Nordeen said. “It’s hard to get that balance.”

Dean Kahn: 360-715-2291

Street trees

For information or complaints about Bellingham’s street trees, including those in residential areas, call Steve Nordeen at Parks and Recreation, 360-778-7100.

For details about street trees in Bellingham, including permits and planting advice, go to cob.org and search for “street trees.”

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