Op-Ed

Urban villages a bad bet for Bellingham’s future

A 1.51 acre parcel located west of Samish Way between Consolidation Avenue and Otis Street is slated for development in the Samish Way urban village, according to the city’s website.
A 1.51 acre parcel located west of Samish Way between Consolidation Avenue and Otis Street is slated for development in the Samish Way urban village, according to the city’s website. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Wherever you live in Whatcom County, unless you are either very rich or very poor, your wages are several dollars per hour lower than they should be and your housing costs are tens of thousands of dollars higher than they should be; in no small part due to city of Bellingham and Whatcom County’s planning failures.

Since 1994 Bellingham has focused on forcing most people to live in high rise apartments and take jobs in the fashionably labeled, “Urban Villages,” basically, satellite downtowns scattered throughout the city. Jobs will be supplied by the ground-floor boutique retail, restaurants, thrift shops and service business mix typically seen in downtown Bellingham.

The Samish Urban Village has been in place for 7 years and we’ve already successfully attracted two businesses; a marijuana shop and a Walgreens.

Most Bellingham children, in the future, are to be raised in second- through fourth-floor apartments. Outside of the “Urban Villages,” almost 600 of Bellingham’s older single-family homes are scheduled to be torn down and replace by multi-story apartment houses.

Bellingham’s long fixation on group housing and restricted job opportunities can only be characterized as having been disastrous economically and socially for every man, woman and child in Whatcom County, not just Bellingham’s citizens.

Consider:

▪ Washington’s Affordable Housing Advisory Board documents that Whatcom County is the least affordable county in all of Washington state for the renter for both a family-sized apartment and one-bedroom apartments;

▪ The same board documents that Whatcom County has the second-most constrained affordable housing market in all of Washington state for owner-occupied housing (only San Juan is worse);

▪ The Bellingham Herald reported that Whatcom County is the 30th worst county in Washington for increase in personal income – 2014. Only nine counties rank worse;

▪ The United Way reports Whatcom is tied for 12th worst county in the state for the number of people in poverty and/or, earning less than the bare minimum household survival budget;

▪ Whatcom County’s median household income is next to last of all of Western Washington’s major metropolitan counties;

▪ The Comprehensive Plan proposed for adoption later this year documents the city of Bellingham is only achieving one-third of the jobs growth assigned to it in the last planning process;

▪ In February the Bellingham City Council was told its General Fund budget would be in a deficit situation beginning next year and continuing for 10 or more years.

On hearing the only solution to the budget problems its planning policies have created would be substantial cuts in services, on-going neglect of the city’s infrastructure, and very large tax increases, the City Council responded by deciding to stay the course on planning initiatives proven to be failures in the past and sail on into the future with little or no change at all.

So, what is this urban village approach Bellingham’s City Council and the Whatcom County Council is betting the future on?

Imagine the short stretch of Samish Way from Consolidation Avenue to Otis Street. Now, take all of the apartments and houses built in Bellingham since 1998 in Barkley Village, downtown Bellingham, the Fountain District, Old Town, Waterfront, and Fairhaven urban villages combined, and plunk them down atop the businesses and homes already existing on Samish.

Next, take all of the commercial and industrial jobs space constructed in Bellingham since 1998 in downtown Bellingham, the Fountain District, Old Town, Waterfront and Fairhaven urban village areas combined and build them on top of the existing homes and businesses as well as atop the new homes you’ve just built on Samish.

Next, build all that jobs space again on top of the jobs space you just built on top of the homes you built on top of what is already built on Samish. Now you’ve completed the urban village as planned.

The Samish Urban Village has been in place for 7 years and we’ve already successfully attracted two businesses; a marijuana shop and a Walgreens.

Even more ambitious figments of the imagination are planned for downtown Bellingham, the Fountain District, Old Town, Waterfront, Fairhaven and soon, the Maplewood Urban Villages.

Meanwhile, as the city is going broke, it refuses to allow building on its most potentially productive jobs lands, and has removed serviced single-family housing lands from its growth area even as it plans to demolish almost 600 affordable single-family homes in our neighborhoods, replacing them with apartments. The Whatcom County Council acts as an enabler in all that.

Our Emperors have no clothes; we’ve got no jobs, no housing choice and no hope.

Jack Petree of Bellingham is the author of many national magazine articles on public policy issues, including urban planning.

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