Adding condos the last step to make district a place to eat, sleep, work
Thirty years ago the Barkley District was just a flat parcel of land on the outskirts of town. Those wandering through the fields were more likely to be local wildlife than local residents.
Fast forward to 2008 and the Barkley District is humming with retail, restaurants and offices. You can buy groceries, sit and drink coffee, or hit a round of golf balls at the driving range. And now you can live there.
With the opening of the Drake Building, a five-story mixed-use building with 36 condos, the Barkley District has added the one missing puzzle piece necessary to create an urban village.
Located on Newmarket Street, just north of the intersection with Barkley Boulevard, the Drake is the first of several planned residential mixed-use buildings in the area.
“That one block is a microcosm for an urban village,” said Stowe Talbot, owner of Talbot Investment Company, which owns the 230 acres that constitute the Barkley District. “We’ll have all the components to make it somewhat sustainable and self-contained: work here and shop here and live here and hang out. “
The idea of living in the Barkley District, however, hasn’t caught on as quickly as hoped. The Drake Building, though it offers upscale condos with a view, is entering a market that has recently slowed significantly. Since opening in early October, only eight of the 36 units have sold, according to the company Web site.
“The market at this point is certainly not as active as it used to be,” said Jeff Kochman, president of Barkley Company.
The ground floor of the building is having better luck finding commercial tenants though. The company is in the process of finalizing an agreement with the library to open a small branch and drop-off location. A small bakery called Our Kitchen is Your Kitchen is also planning on opening in the building.
One by one, the buildings in Barkley have risen and helped to build the character of the district. But how does it all come together as an urban village?
The Barkley District was first recognized as a potential urban village in the city’s 1995 Comprehensive Plan. At the time, there were only two buildings in Barkley: the Heath Tecna industrial building and the Dorothy Haggen office building.
“We first started to formulate a plan for a mixed-use urban village in the early 1990s when the Dorothy Haggen Building went up,” Talbot said. “There were different ideas early on about how it should develop and what it should develop into. I think the idea started gelling in the early to mid-90s that this was a good place for a mixed-use urban village kind of neighborhood center with a variety of uses that are very people-focused.”
The origins of the Barkley urban village
The Talbot family purchased the acreage between Alabama Street and Sunset Avenue in the 1970s as a possible site to expand their waterfront business, Bellingham Cold Storage. After they found an alternate place to expand the business, the property sat idle for many years until Woburn Street was extended through the property to connect with Hannegan Road.
“And then it all kind of started from there,” Talbot said. “It’s grown and I think the city and the residents of Bellingham have kind of come along to grasp this idea of an urban village and the value of having urban centers within city boundaries.”
The current comprehensive plan, which passed in 2005, identifies the Barkley District as a Tier 1 urban village, right up there with Fairhaven and the Central Business District downtown. This designation means that the necessary regulatory framework is in place to allow the urban village concept to develop.
“We’re looking at these urban villages as part of the solution for infill and curbing sprawl and trying to come up with a framework where they will develop as attractive, inviting spaces where people want to be,” said city planner Chris Koch.
Fairhaven and downtown have an obvious head start in reaching that sought-after ideal of the eco-friendly urban village: People have lived in those areas for over a century. In that time, those areas have developed character, something Talbot said is difficult to add to a budding urban village.
“The challenge we face as a greenfield development versus Fairhaven or downtown is [creating] that kind of intangible sense of place you get with a messy urban environment that is developed over many, many years and just has that quirkiness that makes those places really special,” he said. “To try to do that with a new development is very, very challenging. You could write an entire book about this — we talk about it all the time.”
Another issue with building an urban village from the ground up is that modern developments must accommodate the automobile. Rather than building sprawling parking lots, urban villages tend to put parking in underground lots or incorporate it into the building design.
“It’s always challenging, but it’s just part of the equation,” Kochman said.
Though the Barkley District doesn’t have the history of downtown or Fairhaven, it does have something that the other two lack: “One of the advantages we have over some of the other areas that they’ve identified as urban village zones is that we have one ownership and one owner that is absolutely behind the plan,” Kochman said.
As the sole owner of the Barkley District, the company does not face any competing interests that could mar their plans for an urban village. This has also allowed the company to slowly refine their plans and work at their own pace.
“We don’t necessarily embrace the most recent fad,” Talbot said. “And we don’t have a rush to build this thing out in a hurry. Others have said to me, ‘This thing could be built in four years, why don’t you do that?’ Well, we don’t really want to. We want to plan accordingly and roll things out one project at a time. It allows us to manage our growth.”
As the Barkley District continues to grow, residential uses will start to gain a larger presence, Talbot said. In fact, a mixed-use condo building called the Cornerstone, which would be located across the street from the Drake, is now working its way through permitting. The building would be twice as large as the Drake, with 70 units. And, unlike the Drake which offers only studios and one-bedroom units, the Cornerstone will include two-bedroom units.
In the long term, Talbot said, he would like to build more of a variety of residences, such as apartments and townhouses, not just to diversify the company’s holdings, but to diversify the neighborhood.
“I think it’s important that as an urban village you don’t have just one type of person that is living there,” he said. “You’re creating a little mini town and you want to make sure that there’s room for different people there. That’s really important for the functioning of the neighborhood.
“I think that’s good for Bellingham as well."