Rob Camandona believes in a simple mantra for the futurity of downtown Bellingham: Growth is good.
“The thing I want more than anything else downtown is people,” said Camandona, executive director of the Downtown Bellingham Partnership. “This is one of the crown jewels of Whatcom County, and I feel like we need to act soon.”
Along with Bellingham city officials and local nonprofit groups, the partnership is reaching out to downtown stakeholders, property developers, business owners, residents and others to refocus the area’s master plan.
Organizers hope to identify barriers to downtown development and determine the best approach to maintain vitality in the city center. They plan to present a new Sub-Area Plan for the downtown core to the city council by spring 2013.
It is one the first major attempts at strategizing downtown planning since Bellingham implemented its 2002 City Center Master Plan.
Darby Galligan, a development specialist for the city of Bellingham, said one major goal of the process was to define the borders of a downtown area amid other surrounding neighborhoods and districts.
Various regulatory overlays have sectioned off Bellingham’s center into a mosaic of zones all with differing rules, restrictions and master plans.
Galligan said zone overlaps have made it more challenging for business owners to figure out which development areas they fall into.
“That’s a big part of the discussion,” Galligan said. “Let’s figure out where the Downtown Sub-Area boundary is.”
Survey highlights the good and bad
Organizers spent the fall of 2011 gathering input on various aspects of the city center from local residents and business owners with the help of an online survey dubbed “myDowntown.” They released the results in March.
Of the 230 survey respondents who said they had business interests downtown, 81 percent said it was a “good” or “fair” place for commerce.
The downtown’s central location, its character and its proximity to services were the top factors business owners cited in the survey that drove them to set up shop in the area.
On the other end, parking, permitting fees and land or building-use codes were picked as the three biggest barriers to downtown business development.
Camandona said since the survey was not a scientific study, it was difficult to draw conclusions from it. The results work better as an assessment of how well past downtown revitalization efforts have been received by the public, he said.
“I think it performs better as a report card than as a wish list,” Camandona said.
Galligan agreed definitive answers could not be gleaned from the results, and said the survey acted more as a way to identify the hot topics in the conversation.
“The responses need to be taken with a grain of salt,” she said. “The purpose is to take the general reading and pulse of the community.”
Lack of parking seen as development bottleneck
Jim Bjerke, owner of Pacific Continental Realty, a property development company based in downtown Bellingham, said parking has been an issue for businesses in the area for years.
Bjerke has a long history of involvement with downtown development issues.
In addition to living or owning businesses downtown steadily since the early 1980s, he has also served as a chair of the city’s Parking Commission, which was dissolved into the Transportation Commission in 2009.
“The issue for downtown is now, and always has been, parking,” Bjerke said.
The lack of available parking is not just frustrating for shoppers or visitors, he said, but more so for downtown employees.
Michael Smith, a principal at Zervas Group Architects who has spent time on downtown Bellingham’s planning committee, said more parking is certainly necessary for the area to grow, but a solution to the problem needs to benefit both employees and customers.
“There does need to be new parking developed near downtown,” Smith said.
For years, Bjerke has called for the Whatcom Transit Authority to create a downtown-specific bus route that could circle the district and also shuttle workers in the area between offices and outlying parking lots.
Camandona would like to see a new parking garage built downtown, a move both Bjerke and Smith support.
The city currently operates a five-story parkade on Commerical Street, which Camandona believes is an underutilized asset.
He said a simple first step to begin fixing parking issues would be to make people more aware of the parkade, which offers free parking on evenings and weekends, similar to the metered spaces on downtown streets.
Unfortunately, people don’t always feel safe using the structure, especially at night, and its lack of staff doesn’t help counter the unsettling vibe, he said.
Camandona said he’s heard reports of vandalism and other shady activities in the parkade.
“It’s not merely vandalism here and there,” he said “There seems to be something out-of-control about it.”
Looking at the planning process ahead, Camandona said he thinks all parties involved need to step outside their biases and point themselves in a direction that will benefit as many interests as possible.
The biggest obstacle to growth is really just a fear of failure, he said.
“People are really worried about failing,” he said. “If the fear of failure guides every decision, we’re only going to bump along.”