Council approves Fountain District urban village plan

By Ryan Wynne

In 2007, a group of interested neighbors and business owners initiated the process of making the Fountain District an urban village, and on Sept. 27, the Bellingham City Council voted 4-2 to do just that.

The urban village designation is intended to direct future growth in the city within compact urban centers while preserving the character of existing residential neighborhoods and, in the case of the Fountain District, to accommodate a compatible mix of residential and commercial uses.

The three zones laid out for the Fountain District are residential, commercial transition and commercial core. The commercial core designation runs along Meridian Street from about Broadway to West Illinois streets. In it, building heights are capped at 45 feet, which is 10 feet higher than height restrictions in the other areas.

This was a point of contention for neighbors, who don’t want their sunlight and views blocked. Planners tried to resolve this by requiring setbacks and stepbacks, the latter of which requires builders to pull upper stories in toward building cores as they get higher.

Councilmen Gene Knutson and Barry Buchanan opposed the plan because it calls for the removal of parking along one side of a segment of Elm Street to make way for a bike lane. Several area residents spoke out against that removal at a Sept. 13 public hearing.

Katie Franks, Fountain District urban village plan manager for the city, said the area was studied before that decision was made, and planners found that every property along the future bike lane path has either alley access or a driveway for resident parking.

The decision to remove parking is never an easy one, Franks said, because parking is vital for commercial activity. However, she said, there needs to be a balance between parking needs and the needs of bicyclists and pedestrians.

The plan includes changes that drew broad support: crosswalks across Meridian Street, zoning changes, and transformation of Fountain Plaza Park into a more inviting area.

The park project will likely be the first change, but Franks said the overall vision for the area will probably occur slowly over the next 20 years.

“We could see some activity in the next year or so, but it’s not going to happen tomorrow,” Franks said.

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