Urban villages are powerful zoning tools that have been used successfully in many communities, including Bellingham. Since 2006, over 1,000 dwelling units (45 percent of all residential units built in Bellingham) have been located in our urban villages.
These new homes can be found downtown, in Fairhaven and Barkley Village, a fact that Jack Petree’s op-ed article, headlined “Urban villages a bad bet for Bellingham’s future” on April 19, conveniently overlooked. While Samish Way has been slower to develop, as is the case in areas that are undergoing substantial change, a 154-unit mixed-income apartment project with 20,000 square feet of commercial space is moving forward on the Aloha Motel site — another fact overlooked by Mr. Petree. While we might disagree on policy, we should never disagree on facts.
The fact is that we can no longer afford, as a community, to sprawl further out into the county and expect our public taxes to continue to subsidize both growth and developers’ profits. Urban villages represent a way to promote growth while substantially reducing public cost subsidies and providing greater diversity in housing options. A 2008 University of Utah study by A.C. Nelson concluded that it is more than twice as expensive for the public (not the developer) to provide municipal services (water, sewer, police, fire) further out into the countryside compared to compact, higher density in-town locations. Apparently, Mr. Petree would like us to return to that development model as he has repeatedly advocated for expansion of Bellingham’s boundaries into the rural areas of Whatcom County. The City Council has rightfully resisted such efforts.
Some other facts Mr. Petree conveniently left out:
▪ Whatcom County’s median housing costs, as a percentage of household income, are similar to other counties in the state such as Skagit, Clark and Spokane.
▪ From 1994-2015, the city issued permits for over 12,500 new dwelling units. Forty-three hundred of those permits were for single family residences.
▪ Vacant land supply in the city has the capacity for over 5,000 additional single family residences.
▪ Urban villages are forecast to accommodate only about 40 percent of the new residences over the next 20 years. The other 60 percent will be built in other areas of the city.
▪ During the Great Recession, almost no new dwelling units were built in Bellingham. Now that the recovery is underway, hundreds of new units are being constructed. The market is responding to the demand, but it takes time to get projects designed, permitted and built.
▪ Our population demographics are changing. The nation’s home ownership rate has been falling for eight years. Millennials (a group even larger than the Baby Boomers) prefer housing options close to employment, shops, services and recreational facilities. Walkability is a key factor for these young people when choosing where to live.
▪ Most of the 600 homes Mr. Petree suggests will be demolished at some point in the future are located in commercial and industrial zones. If demolished, they would likely be replaced by new employment opportunities, not apartments as Petree suggests.
▪ Mr. Petree predicts that the urban villages of the future will have jobs “typically seen in downtown Bellingham” — “boutique retail, restaurant and thrift shop.” In fact, 5,400 of the 8,000 jobs in downtown Bellingham are in the office, professional, financial or technology sectors of our economy. Faithlife (formerly Logos), a software development company, is downtown’s largest private sector employer with over 300 employees.
Further missing the point of urban villages as vibrant, mixed-use communities, Mr. Petree erroneously equates the allowance of more retail establishments to limiting job opportunities – precisely what additional retail businesses would provide. And opportunities for more small businesses would promote local-owner entrepreneurialism to further diversity our employment base.
Mr. Petree categorizes efforts to establish urban villages in Bellingham as “planning failures.” However, the downtown, Barkley and Fairhaven urban villages are thriving. What he refers to as “failures” are providing housing choices and greater opportunities for our diversifying Bellingham population. Perhaps the true failure here is assigning blame to strategies that are working rather than to our past sprawl and public subsidy policies that caused our current situation.
Nicholas Zaferatos, a 42-year Bellingham resident, is a professor of urban planning at Western Washington University. He served on Bellingham’s Planning and Development Commission between 1991-2006.