City-center design standards adopted

First big test, the new Key Bank drive-through downtown, reveals a few early loopholes, however

The new Key Bank drive-through downtown passed muster with the new city-center design review board, but not without misgivings about its small size.

Heidi Schiller
   After several years of research and development that involved the planning department and a committee of local architects, designers and developers, Bellingham’s city-center design standards took effect on Nov. 24.
   The standards regulate a number of design elements for an area that encompasses the Central Business District and parts of the Lettered Streets, Sunnyland, York and Sehome neighborhoods. Any new buildings, developments, additions or exterior alterations with a valuation of over $50,000 in the city center are subject to the standards. A separate board will review changes proposed to buildings on historic registers.
   The standards, which are spelled out entirely in a 51-page handbook, cover a range of specific design issues, but ultimately focus on four basic guiding principles: encouraging clear definitions of street edges, making the street level inviting, relating new projects to traditional buildings in the area and respecting a historic building’s time period.
   The ordinance also called for the creation of a board made up of three local architects and two community members to review each qualifying project’s design. The board meets once a month and members are expected to study each proposal on their own before each meeting.
   The current board consists of three architects and two community members that serve terms ranging from one to four years.
   Robert Ross, a local architect since 1972, applied for a board position after working on the committee that helped sculpt the standards. He said he applied for the position because he felt like the standards were a good start, but needed some tweaking.
   “I wanted to, at the minimum, track it to see how these things developed,” he said.
   Jan Hayes, a residential building designer for Domistyle, fulfills one of the board’s community-member roles even though she has design experience. Hayes applied for the board because she was interested in being part of the building-permit oversight process. From the beginning she thought the idea for design standards would add more cohesiveness to the downtown while keeping the city’s heritage in mind, she said.
   “We want to go forward with something that looks like it was planned, instead of haphazard,” she said. “I think the design review standards are a very good start.”
   So far, the unprecedented board, for Bellingham, (many other cities have similar standards and boards) has been an organic experience, Hayes said.
   “It’s interesting to see the sticking places in the first project review,” she said. “Some of the issues didn’t directly relate to the standards.”

Mass and bulk among the standards’ major holes
   Designs for a new Key Bank drive-through on the corner of Holly and State streets, which would replace the current Key Bank drive-through there, were the board’s first review assignment.
   The bank proposed a 23-foot-tall, 4,980-square-foot building with three — instead of its current eight — drive-through lanes.
   The board reviewed and approved the proposal on Dec. 19, much to the dismay of several local developers who said the project was inappropriate for such a prominent corner in the city center.
   The big issue, Ross said, was the project’s proposed height and bulk, which opponents said was too small. The building proposal was only one story, although it was 23 feet tall, which is roughly equivalent to the height of a two-story building. While the design guidelines encourage a minimum height of two stories, they don’t mandate height regulations.
   The irony of this dilemma, Ross and Hayes agreed, was that the committee that had mulled over the standards originally anticipated the problem would be addressing how very tall towers would fit into the design standards, not smaller ones.
   But since there is nothing in the standards that mandates height limits or requirements, the board could not regulate the issue.
   “Unless those design standards change to address mass and height in a slightly different way, we don’t have a tool that gives us the ability to say it needs to match this standard,” Hayes said.
   Bob Hall, owner of Daylight Properties, owns several buildings near the Key Bank site and wrote one of four public-comment letters expressing concern about the proposal.
   “That is the most poorly used corner in the county,” he said.
   While the new Key Bank design was better than the current building, Hall said, he was disappointed with the building’s small scale and limited lot coverage. Hall, who was on the city-center design standards committee, said he would have hoped that such an essential corner — one that acts as a gateway into the downtown — would have been developed into a building similar to the Marketplace Building on the corner of Holly Street and Railroad Avenue, where Starbucks is located.
   Hall described the project as a throwback to the 1960s, when many historic buildings were torn down in the city center in order to build small, drive-in style buildings.
   “This duplicates a wrong-headed idea of design from when we thought we were trying to attract automobiles,” he said.
   Hall concedes, however, that the height and bulk issues were out of the board’s hands.
   “It’s true that it doesn’t really break any of the rules,” he said. “But this is really pressing the limit on what we’d like for downtown.”
   Hall said the Key Bank proposal brought to light the need for a formal set of minimum height regulations, and both Hayes and Ross said the first project review exposed some holes in the standards.
   “It was, actually, I think, a good one to start with, because it brought up right away where the holes are in the standards,” Hayes said.
   The planning department will examine height and bulk regulations, possibly including minimum height regulations, as part of a broad development code update during the next two years, senior planner Marilyn Vogel said. No specific schedule has been set for consideration of the issue yet, she said.
   Other than addressing height and bulk issues, board members foresee a range of other issues coming up as they review more projects, such as lot coverage, which arose in discussions of the Key Bank proposal. While the standards encourage lot coverage and density, both Hayes and Ross said it would be difficult to expect a drive-through, which requires vehicle lanes, to cover most of their lot, especially since the one-acre lot’s zoning has a parking requirement.
   Nothing in the standards dictates how much a building developer must spend on a project, Ross said, and underground parking, for example, can be very expensive to build. The issue touches again on the difficulty of regulating project sizes.
   “It’s nice that the goal may be to have a four- or five-story building, but if a person owns the property and they can meet the guidelines by making a minimal-size building and that is all they can afford to do, we can’t tell them otherwise,” Hayes said.
   Other issues Hayes predicts the board will encounter are questions of aesthetics, especially because the design standards were written with the intention of being vague enough that they wouldn’t stifle creativity.
   “There is a look to downtown, a general feel, that I’m hoping we can maintain, but leave room for new interpretations and new, more modern structures,” she said. “I think that’s going to be a tricky issue because it is so subjective.”

Finding a balance between consistency and creativity
   Some local architects are concerned about the creativity issue. Architect Fred Wagner, of Grinstad & Wagner Architects, said that in addition to the concern that the new board adds just one more bureaucratic hoop to jump through, he also wonders if the Gateway Building on the corner of Holly Street and Railroad Avenue — where Bob’s Burgers & Brew is located — would have been approved if it had come before the new design review board.
   He noted, specifically, the building’s cantilevered style, otherwise known as an encroachment or a projection into the public right of way, which the new standards restrict to four feet. Until now, architects have used encroachments to add creativity to building design, he said.
   “That is one creative tool that has been taken away,” he said.
   When posed with the same hypothesis of whether the Gateway Building would have been approved by the board, both Hayes and Ross could not say for sure if it would have. They stressed that the standards have been written with the idea that developers and designers should begin consulting with the planning department and board members early on so as not to spend large amounts of money on designs that are incongruous with the new standards. And, ultimately, each said the goal of the board is to work with designers and developers to create projects that fit in with the rest of downtown while still offering creative and inspired design.
   “We are going to be reasonable,” Hayes said. “We’re not going to dictate.”

Who are the members of the city-center design review board?

Architectural professionals:
John Stewart, chair, three-year term. A principal architect with Stewart + King Architects, Inc.
Robert Ross, four-year term. A principal architect with Ross Architecture NW.
David Willett, two-year term. An architect for Western Washington University.

Community members:
Jan Hayes, one-year term. Residential building designer for Domistyle.
Ken Bothman, two-year term. Owner of La Fiamma Woodfire Pizza.




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