Business, residents weigh in on mixed-use urban village
photo by Lance Henderson
Bellingham’s Fountain District has a lot of potential.
A stroll along Meridian Street between Monroe and West Illinois streets reveals a hodge-podge strip of homes, businesses and homes-converted-into-businesses surrounded by parks, schools and amenities.
While the district is filled with school children and neighbors, the area can seem uninviting and the streets are more geared toward motorists zooming up Meridian toward Bellis Fair Mall than a group of friends trying to cross the street.
Yes, the Fountain District has lots of potential, but potential for what?
In 2004, Bellingham conducted a growth forum, which identified several urban centers that could be analyzed and developed into dense, mixed-use urban villages to accommodate the more than 60,000 people projected to move to Bellingham over the next 20 years. These areas are the Old Town, Samish Way, Barkley Village, Downtown and Fountain districts.
On April 1, Bellingham’s Planning & Community Development Department began a series of public-input meetings to find out how neighborhood residents would like to see the Fountain District grow.
Katie Franks, a development specialist for the city of Bellingham who is running the Fountain planning meetings, said the district straddles the Lettered Streets, Columbia and Cornwall Park neighborhoods and a commercial vein along Meridian, and therefore has a lot of stakeholders interested in the project. Franks said the city’s first meeting drew 57 residents and 23 business owners.
“It’s really a great asset because they have worked so well together. There have been a couple of neighbors who have really been great about meeting and helping to guide the process,” Franks said.
Planning for an urban village
Over the next 20 years, Bellingham will experience growth, and Washington state’s Growth Management Act demands that the city have a plan to accommodate that growth.
But the city can’t tell people where to live, so they must make the area attractive.
“It’s not just coming in and saying, ‘We want to put big buildings here and accommodate more units.’ We want to be able to entice people,” Franks said. “We want to improve the quality of life here and work with people to make the most of their investments and really attract people to this area and not just have them move here by default.”
Franks said urban villages attract residents with green spaces, gathering places, walkable sidewalks and crosswalks, access to multi-modal transportation (buses, bike lanes, parking) and unique visual character.
Around the turn of the 20th century, Franks said most communities were set up this way, because the automobile was brand new and cities had not molded themselves around cars yet.
“This is kind of a paradigm shift in collective thinking, so we are looking back at what made places feel that way and what made people congregate and what built communities back then,” Franks said.
‘Eye-opening’ planning meetings
At the April 15 Fountain planning meeting, neighbors looked at maps and identified walking areas that made them feel unsafe, open spaces that could be expanded or improved and pedestrian linkages that could be built to improve walkability.
As stakeholders huddled over maps, recorders frantically scribbled out ideas and thoughts coming from their groups.
Franks, who has been with the Bellingham Planning Department for nearly nine years, said she loves hearing ideas from people with so much invested in the area.
“It’s really interesting and eye-opening for me to talk to all the business owners and property owners because a lot of them have been around for 50 years or more, so there is some real longevity there,” she said.
Meeting participant Jim Gunsolus said he has lived in the Lettered Streets Neighborhood for the past 11 years. He and his wife have a young daughter and he attended the Fountain District planning meetings to make sure the district grows in a way that is family friendly and retains its historical character.
“We can make it a walkable neighborhood that is friendly and allows businesses to exist and families to live here and enjoy the place and not have it dominated by automobiles and retail,” Gunsolus said.
Gunsolus said he has really enjoyed hearing all the different public input.
“There are some great ideas here. I’ve heard a lot of things that I wouldn’t have thought of,” he said.
Concerns about Monroe St. closure
With an urban village being planned, there is the potential for a negative impact on businesses in the area.
Troy Olney, owner of Unity HR located on Monroe Street just across from the Fountain Plaza, attended the April 15 planning meeting because of the potential impact to his property.
While at the meeting, several of the discussion groups were in favor of some type of temporary or permanent closure of Monroe Street to make the Fountain Plaza more of a community-gathering place.
Olney said that would eliminate up to 13 parking spaces in front of his business, however.
“Those spaces allow my clients to enter and exit in a timely fashion when dropping off stuff and moving on with their day,” Olney said. “So if they were not able to do that, they would still find a way, but it would devalue the storefront of this property.”
Olney said these days, businesses need help, not more headaches.
“I have more skin in the game than anyone else and with all the companies in this area and the shrinkage that we are seeing, having pressure on us in any way, shape or form is pretty tough to swallow,” Olney said.
Possibilities for the Fountain Drug building
However, the urban village planning could provide possibilities for some businesses and property owners.
Rodger Spero, a commercial real estate specialist with Wm. T. Follis, LLC, Realtors who is the listing agent for Fountain Drug and Galleria building at 2416 Meridian St., said he has been frustrated with the property because it has had some flirts, but no takers.
Spero said the property has 5,500 square feet upstairs and a 4,500-square-foot “bargain basement,” which, as a whole, he could see as a medical center or a recreation of the Fountain bakery.
“It’s a fairly large property and it is a challenge because the front portion is zoned commercial and the back is grandfathered in for parking but the only thing you could develop back there are duplexes,” Spero said.
Spero said he has always felt the area needed an up-zone to allow more diverse uses and is excited to see what this momentum can bring about.
“That would give us the ability to have smaller retail tenants in the space with apartments above, and if you go up three or four stories there are great views up there” Spero said. “The reality is that the existing building might not make it and we might have to replan our whole approach.”
Until then, Spero said he wants to focus on splitting up the building, so he can give interim tenants a good deal on a long-term lease.
“We could make this a real asset for the community again,” he said.
The road ahead
On May 6, Franks said she and other planners will present a summary of public input from all of the Fountain planning meetings in April. Then the planning department will spend a few months with the data, while still providing opportunities for public comment.
“The professional team will take the information that we heard and we will analyze it and identify areas that might need additional study,” Franks said.
That team will reemerge at the end of the summer with a draft master plan, Franks said.
“That is just showing people different scenarios so they can see how what they want could play out,” Franks said.
After that, the planners will seek an environmental review and then planning commission and City Council approval. Franks said she hopes to go before the city council in October 2009.
Gunsolus said if he had his way, Bellingham would pull up the drawbridge and not allow anyone else to move here, but he also said he knows that is unrealistic.
“We have to plan for it and we have to ensure that we retain the character in the process,” he said.
Overall, Gunsolus said, he has been impressed with the way the city is running the Fountain planning meetings.
“I think, from what I have seen, the city is listening to what the people are saying and hopefully they will respond and pull together this diversity of opinions to come up with a plan,” Gunsolus said.