By Isaac Bonnell
A large part of successful development and city planning has to do with creating a sense of place. Buildings by themselves don’t create character; it’s the businesses and people who work in those buildings that help bring vibrancy to an area.
So, as the northern half of Bellingham continues to grow in areas like Barkley, King Mountain and Cordata, both residents and businesses are seeking to create their own sense of place.
Take the Mount Baker Neighborhood for instance. It is the largest neighborhood by size and also one of the fastest growing, but it has an identity crisis.
“The main issue has been the name,” said Stowe Talbot, owner of Barkley Company. “Nobody says, ‘I live in the Mount Baker Neighborhood.’ They use the names Barkley and Irongate.”
Up until three years ago, the neighborhood didn’t have a neighborhood association. Talbot was one of the key proponents of starting a neighborhood association and tried to get residents involved, but turnout was low.
Early on, Talbot said he recognized the problem: “The neighborhood is so big that it needs to be split.”
On behalf of the neighborhood association, which voted unanimously to split, Talbot sent the city a letter in 2007 requesting that the city split the neighborhood in two, a task that involves a lot of staff time to amend the city’s comprehensive plan.
At the time, the request didn’t get far, but other northern neighborhoods have joined the effort. In July, the city initiated the Northern Neighborhoods Boundary Review Project, stating that “The size of Bellingham’s northern neighborhoods have become unwieldy and over-sized due to successive annexations … Smaller neighborhoods can be easier to organize around shared goals and common interests.”
Under the proposal currently being worked on by city staff, each of the following neighborhoods will be affected:
• Mount Baker: This neighborhood will be split along Sunset Avenue into two neighborhoods, Irongate and Barkley. Irongate will consist almost entirely of industrial zoning while Barkley will remain largely residential and commercial.
• King Mountain: The boundaries of this new neighborhood, which was just created this year, will be adjusted to take on more residential areas. The neighborhood recently took on the Van Wyck/James Street Annex, where developer Ralph Black is planning to build an urban village.
• Guide Meridian/Cordata: This neighborhood will be shrunk to include just the developments along Cordata Parkway. It will be renamed Cordata and much of the commercial and industrial land to the south and east will go to the Meridian Neighborhood.
• Meridian: This small neighborhood that encompasses the Bellis Fair mall will grow to include the entire Meridian Street commercial corridor and will extend west all the way to the freeway.
Adjusting the boundaries of four large neighborhoods isn’t as quick and easy as just drawing lines on a map, said Nicole Oliver, spokesperson for the Planning and Community Development Department. There is a lot of time-consuming work required to make this happen.
“It’s just a matter of breaking this into doable pieces of technical work,” Oliver said. “It won’t be finalized until next year as part of the comp plan review.”
If approved, the proposal will create the city’s first neighborhood that consists almost entirely of industrial zoning.
Though Irongate isn’t a typical neighborhood, there is still a thriving community there that could benefit from having a neighborhood association, said Don Hale, the current president of the Mount Baker Neighborhood Association.
“There is a negative image of our industrial neighborhood and we want to change that,” Hale said. “This is an important area of the city. There’s not a whole lot of manufacturing going on in Bellingham, and most of what is here is in Irongate.”
Hale already has several issues that a new neighborhood association could work on. For starters, the area could use more sidewalks for the growing number of people who walk around Irongate during lunch. People also commute to work in Irongate, so adding bike lanes to the main roads would be nice, Hale said.
Overall, Hale would like to see the neighborhood recognized as an integral part of the city.
“I envision it being a neighborhood that has clout,” Hale said. “If something comes up with the city, I want the city to say, ‘Well, the Irongate Neighborhood is going to oppose this, so we better work with them on this.'”
For Talbot, redrawing neighborhood boundaries is an important step in building a better Bellingham.
“There will be a better sense of community,” Talbot said.