Birch Bay tower unveiled

Dan Hiestand
   Birch Bay is growing — or perhaps more fittingly — going up, and now a development’s planners have a picture of what their version of vertical growth looks like.
   Early last year, the county approved preliminary plans for aa 90-unit condominium development called Terrell Creek Villas on the Bay. The project would feature two townhouse-style buildings and a seven-story building with a spa — the latter structure being the tallest in Birch Bay.
   Larry D. Willman, president of Bellingham-based Intergroup Development Corporation — a consultant on the proposed development — said he plans to apply for building permits by June with the hopes of breaking ground no later than next spring. Willman represents the property’s owner and developer, Terrell Creek LLC, a company overseen by California resident Art Weiner.
   While the project may still be months from breaking ground, a peek at the construction drawings — created by Bellingham architect David Christensen — reveals a design rooted in environmental sensitivity and an incorporation of natural beauty, said Willman.
   “Birch Bay is sort of a community in transition, and (Weiner) thought that maybe he could set a new standard out there,” said Willman of the proposal, which he estimates will have a price tag of between $17 million and $20 million. “Everybody knows that waterfront is a precious and limited commodity.”
   The site of the development includes 10.5 acres along Birch Bay Drive, north of Alderson Road, next to a spit where Terrell Creek flows into the bay. In addition to the three main buildings, the development would have a public trail along the west side of Birch Bay Drive and a private pedestrian bridge over Terrell Creek leading to private trails and picnic areas on the spit. It would also feature a large, central courtyard.
   “The courtyard area is intended to make it look attractive from the street level when you are driving by,” Willman said. “If you look at most of the projects out in Birch Bay, it’s just a wall of buildings. And what we have here is mostly green space. That’s why I wanted that eye-level elevation to be there because you are looking into a courtyard that will be very attractively landscaped.”
   However, it is the project’s seven stories that separate it from the rest of Birch Bay’s development pack.
   “Nobody has done a 75-foot building in Birch Bay,” he said. “Resort commercial zoning in Birch Bay allows for up to 75 feet, but there are things that you have to accomplish to attain that height.”
   These issues included meeting environmental standards such as allowing for open space and not obstructing views of local property owners. The development would leave approximately 70 percent as open space and county officials found no likely negative environmental impacts resulting from the plan, which includes some wetland and buffer work, Willman said.
   “We don’t block anybody’s views,” he said. “You have to show that you are not going to block views. Dave (Christensen) did all of that, and we were very meticulous in making sure that the neighbors were going to be happy with what we did there.”
   Previous plans for the property, which were devised under a different owner, included building condominiums on the spit, Willman said.
   “That didn’t sell well with the neighbors, and I didn’t think it was a good idea because I think the idea is to preserve the spit in a natural state (aside from the walking trails and picnic areas),” said Willman. He added that environmental standards for development on the site are more rigorous because Terrell Creek is classified as a salmon waterway.
   The eastern area of the property, behind the seven-story building, will remain undeveloped but enhanced, he said. Aside from open space, Willman said area residents supported the notion of permanent residents, as opposed to time-share condominiums and rental units.
   “These are not for quarter-shares, or fractional shares or rentals — these are people’s homes,” Willman said. “And that was another selling point with the neighbors.”
   Willman said he believes the high-end, resort-style community will be the first of many in the area.
   “Some people said this might be risky because it’s very high-end for (Birch Bay),” Willman said. “But I think most of the public out there thinks that it is the first of what’s going to happen.”
   Some area residents have voiced concerns, said Kathy Berg, chairwoman of the Birch Bay Steering Committee. Berg, who has lived in Birch Bay since 1992, said she has concerns about the height of the buildings, increased automobile traffic to the area and the environmental impact of foot traffic on the spit.
   “Introducing more people (on the spit) isn’t the best use for that particular piece of land,” she said. “Putting people and their dogs out there is not going to improve it.”
   While Willman said he understands Berg’s concerns, he pointed out that environmental enhancements and buffers planned for the spit will re-introduce native plants to the terrain while removing non-native plants, which he said have become more prevalent over the years, and that more than 90 percent of the spit will remain in a “natural state.”
   While there was some public concern about traffic issues, the county hearing examiner concluded that Whatcom County Public Works reviewed and appropriately conditioned the project.
   Whatcom County Hearing Examiner Michael Bobbink approved the plan, subject to various conditions regarding traffic mitigation, including road improvements on the site, a bicycle/pedestrian path, connections to the Millennium Trail, and a financial contribution to traffic improvements for the Birch Bay / Lynden Road intersection.
   “Our project, at 90 units, doesn’t represent a significant increase in overall traffic,” Willman said. “We did a traffic study, and are engaged in the final traffic design right now.”
   He said the county doesn’t have concerns with traffic issues, and has even suggested that slower traffic would be beneficial to the pedestrian-heavy resort area.
   Bob Aitken, a director at the Birch Bay Chamber of Commerce, said he supports the Terrell Creek Villa proposal, as well as many of the major projects occurring in the area. However, Aitken — who has lived in Birch Bay since 1997 — said the community must proceed carefully when it comes to high-rise developments.
   “It (can) ruin the small-town atmosphere when you start putting those large buildings up,” he said. “I’ve lived in other areas of the country where I’ve seen that happen, and it completely changes things.”

Aquarium backers start lease talks with port

Heidi Schiller
   The starfish are aligning for the TerrAquarium project, as organizers are poised to begin a major fundraising push.
   The local nonprofit organization, Northwest Discovery Project, is launching a campaign to raise $1.7 million by this summer in order to begin preconstruction planning for the aquarium envisioned on the New Whatcom waterfront, organizer Bob Goodwin said. The Port of Bellingham and city of Bellingham included the aquarium in a September presentation of the New Whatcom site’s draft framework plan.
   TerrAquarium organizers are in the process of discussing a lease agreement with the port to locate the aquarium at the southern tip of Hilton Ave., across from the Hotel Bellwether — a site currently being used for dry boat storage, Goodwin said.
   However, no New Whatcom lease agreements can be made until the site’s master plan is complete, said Lydia Bennett, director of real estate for the port. Bennett said she expects the master plan to be completed by spring at the earliest or by the end of the year at the latest.
   Northwest Discovery Project members envision the aquarium on a 2.5-acre footprint, but Goodwin said they wouldn’t know for sure until completion of a market analysis and concept plan.
   The nonprofit TerrAquarium project has been in the works for several years, Goodwin said. The goal of the aquarium would be to tell the story of the varied biological habitats of the Pacific Northwest, from Mount Baker’s ice caves to the forests and valleys of the Skagit, Nooksack and Fraser rivers, to Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean.
   The aquarium would include a 300-seat auditorium and two “discovery” labs for live interpretive programs.
   Members of the Northwest Discovery Project have been consulting with several representatives of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey Bay, Calif., including its project manager and the original senior marine biologist on the TerrAquarium’s plan. A 2004 study of the economic impact of the Monterey Bay Aquarium found that it generated $173 million a year that flowed into Monterey County, created 930 jobs and attracted approximately 1.6 million visitors to the area in 2003.
   Goodwin said he hopes the TerrAquarium would have a similar effect on Whatcom County’s economy.
   John Cooper, president and CEO of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism, said he has heard about various incarnations of an aquarium project in Bellingham since he moved here 14 years ago, and that this version seems to be gaining traction.
   “This would be a great match for the community. On one side, it will help bring visitors to town, and conversely, it will be a great educational resource for our community,” Cooper said.
   Organizers anticipate a six-year process for development of the aquarium. The $1.7 million they are raising now would be used in the next two years to complete a marketing analysis; concept plan; budgeting, scheduling and operations plan; and an economic and funding feasibility plan.
   After that, organizers will need to raise more money for the project’s architectural design, engineering, permitting and construction, Goodwin said.
   Goodwin said the current campaign will focus on getting funding from both public and private parties.
   “We are looking right now for anyone in the community who supports the idea of this kind of facility,” he said.
   For more information, e-mail Goodwin at

Ebenal prepares Bellwether Gate project for port

Heidi Schiller
   Developer David Ebenal is moving closer toward developing Bellwether Gate, a 3.13-acre mixed-use project on the Port of Bellingham-owned Bellwether Peninsula.
   The development, which would be located on two separate parcels, would include the first residential units built in the Bellwether-Squalicum Harbor area, according to Wayne Weed, vice president of operations for Ebenal General.
   “I see this, as I think (the port) sees it too, as a model they would like to utilize throughout the development of the waterfront,” Weed said. “We feel somewhat like pioneers.”
   The port has been negotiating a memorandum of understanding during the past eight months for the project that sets forth major deal points, such as lease terms and size of the development, with Bellwether Gate, LLC — a company managed by Ebenal and his wife, Bonita, said Lydia Bennett, director of real estate for the port.
   At press time, port commissioners were expected to approve the memorandum of understanding at their Feb. 6 meeting, said Shirley McFearin, real estate development manager for the port.
   According to the memorandum, the two parties would negotiate the lease and design development agreement by May 31, 2007, and construction would start on the first phase of the project no later than April 1, 2008.
   The parcels represent the last developable land on the Bellwether Peninsula, McFearin said.
   Ebenal will purchase the sites for a combined, one-time capital lease payment of $2,868,684. The leases for each parcel run for 80 years, and Ebenal Gate LLC would have the right to renew each.
   The memorandum states that Ebenal is required to develop the site as a mixed-use urban development, including retail and commercial businesses, offices, sub-surface and surface parking, and either residential or office units on the upper floors.
   The lease would also be contingent on city of Bellingham approval for a minimum building height of 55 feet.
   The two parcels are on either side of Bellwether Way, McFearin said. The larger of the two is adjacent to the marina between the two Anthony’s restaurants. Weed said the initial idea for this parcel is to build an 80,000-square-foot mixed-use building there.
   The smaller parcel is located between the U.S. Coast Guard and Paulsen buildings, and Weed said plans for this site are still in the design phase.
   While Weed said no plans or renderings are available to the public yet, Bellwether Gate will be consistent with the design elements of other buildings on the peninsula.
   So far, he has been approached by several interested tenants for the development, but could not say who, and added that no leases would be finalized before the lease with the port is signed.
   “Being a mixed-use building, it’s going to increase the economic vitality of that area,” he said.
   McFearin agreed, saying the addition of residents in the area would help to liven business activity on the peninsula.
   “It would be wonderful because then we’d get the 24-seven activity, which would help all our restaurants and retail activity there,” she said.



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