Well-planned growth or invitation for super-sprawl?
Imagine a 200-acre green field as the undeveloped blank slate. Now add roads, trails, 1,800 housing units concentrated on one-third of the acreage, interspersed with pockets of commercial space, a school, a library, parks, fire and police departments, a golf course and ball fields. Imagine all this will be developed with sustainable and environmentally conscious methods based on scientific best practices, and also with the promise of affordability for all income levels.
Welcome to Larrabee Springs.
The project — proposed by Caitac Group and its team of approximately 12 consultants and advisors — has been in the works since 1991.
“Our tenet is that form follows function,” said Ted Mischaikov, a local developer and the project’s development manager. “This is a new paradigm where there are no rules.”
Mischaikov likened the project to other Bellingham neighborhoods such as Fairhaven and Barkley village where a singular patriarch guided the development process. Larrabee Springs will be innovative in that the developer — Caitac — will work in conjunction with the city during its master-planning process, he said.
The Bellingham planning commission suggested annexation of Larrabee Springs — known as Cordata North/Caitac five-year review area — as part of its recommendation to update Whatcom County’s 1997 Urban Fringe Subarea Plan. The recommendation is based on the projection that Bellingham will increase by 31,601 people in the next 16 years. The city’s planning department conducted a land supply analysis that stated only 21,379 of those new people could fit into the existing city limits; therefore 2,000 acres should be annexed to the city to accommodate the rest of the growth.
After the City Council adopts the recommendation formally on May 15, whether the project is eventually realized depends on whether the County Council accepts it. The City Council will likely make its recommendation to the county on May 16.
The proposed project — located north of the city’s most northern limits and bounded by the Guide Meridian to the east and Smith Road to the north — is just one part of the debate, but a pivotal one.
While most planners and community members agree the plan itself, as a concept, is a good one, many disagree on its timeliness or whether the project will even be actualized after annexation. While its proponents see Larrabee Springs as a smart and well-planned answer to Bellingham’s growth issues, others consider the project the embodiment of sprawl that will drain the city’s vitality, and may end up being the next phase of mall-type development.
A plan 15 years in the making
Caitac, an international garment manufacturer that owns commercial property in Whatcom County, purchased the Larrabee Springs area from Trillium in 1991. In 1995, it was designated as a five-year review area, meaning the city considers annexing it into its urban growth area every five years.
The project’s current conceptual plans were devised after a 2003 workshop, sponsored by the developers, in which 77 surrounding area residents and community members offered input about its design and plans.
That design includes a pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use neighborhood built with energy-efficient practices and employs green design standards from the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Green Building Council, the building of which will cost Caitac approximately $54 million. The plan’s proposed net density is nine lots per acre, which is two to three times greater than Bellingham’s current net density, Mischaikov said.
In response to concerns about transportation, Caitac will extend Cordata Parkway north to Smith Road, costing the company $4 million, and will also pay for a free electric or low-emission shuttle service to loop through the neighborhood and down Cordata, Mischaikov said.
Larrabee Springs will be a neighborhood where people live and work, a model that reduces any potential traffic impact on the rest of the city, he said.
“This is not a country club development,” he said. “It’s not a housing development with a convenience store. We want people who live there to have a chance to work there.”
Mischaikov added that the North Bellingham Golf Course, which is located on the property, as well as all park space, would remain public.
Also, the state has already committed to widening the Guide Meridian before Vancouver hosts the 2010 Olympics, and the city has already committed to extending sewer service in that area, city planner Pat Carman said.
Because of these preparations, and because the plan’s concept is so well planned, said planning commission member Doug Starcher, the planning commission took notice of Larrabee springs.
“Their willingness to do development in the fashion the city and public wants, influenced us to a certain extent,” Starcher said.
The question remains, however, of whether the city and the public actually do want this type of development. Some question the initial premise for adding 2,000 acres to the city in the first place. Some say Larrabee Springs will gut the city’s existing urban areas, much like many feel the Bellis Fair mall development did in 1989.
Infill? Sprawl? Phase two of Bellis Fair mall?
“I think the project is innovative and has the potential to be a wonderful model for what master-planned communities can look like, but I have reservations about whether it’s time yet,” said Councilwoman Joan Beardsley, who was on the planning commission for five years before being elected to City Council.
A former fellow commissioner agrees.
Whether or not Larrabee Springs is a good project is secondary to the question of whether the city needs to expand in the first place, said Nicholas Zaferatos, an associate planning professor at Western who was a member of the planning commission from 1995 to 2005.
Zaferatos said he thinks the city can do more to infill its current boundaries before adding 2,000 more acres. Many areas of the city are underutilized and could increase their densities to accommodate thousands more units, including the Samish, Sunnyland and Roosevelt neighborhoods, he said.
However, only two of the city’s 23 neighborhood plans have been updated since 2000, planner Chris Behee said.
City Council directed the planning department to complete citywide and UGA zoning regulations before considering the neighborhood plans, said planner Pat Carman.
Besides, according to letters and neighborhood meetings, the planning commission gathered that most neighborhoods don’t want increased density, also evidenced by the fact that the neighborhoods in the process of updating their plans, for example the York neighborhood, do not want to increase density, Starcher said.
“In theory, people support ideas of infill, the problem comes when you propose updating neighborhood plans (to include infill),” he said.
Mischaikov agreed, and said that people are moving to other areas of the county because they want to live in affordable homes with yards, not just condo towers. Larrabee Springs will provide both affordability and yards, he said.
Because of the project’s different types of proposed housing, it will automatically offer a graduated price range for people of all income levels, said Bob Tull, the project’s land-use attorney.
Zaferatos disagreed, saying the market determines home prices, and even if the homes were initially more affordable, prices would likely rise to market value upon resale. The most effective way to keep homes affordable is to infill, he said.
But that type of thinking is incorrect, Mischaikov said.
“Infill is seen as a panacea to fight sprawl,” Mischaikov said. “It’s a misconception that people will change where they want to live. I know better than to think it’s going to solve our issues. We need to grow out a little bit, and do it responsibly.”
Mischaikov said the city’s goods and services center is in the north, along the Guide Meridian between the airport and Bakerview Road. People flow north and south daily through the area, including both Bellingham and county residents, he said.
Because of that flow, Larrabee Springs would not create sprawl, he said. In fact, the project will be able to absorb growth of people who work in that area, who might potentially sprawl out into the county if the project is not developed, he said.
But Zaferatos insists that the project equals sprawl, and could eventually have similar ramifications to the development of Bellis Fair mall in the ‘80s.
“This is like phase two (of the mall), but on a grander scale,” he said.
The Larrabee Springs project is similar in that Trillium sought to have the Meridian area annexed and then “spun it out to people to develop,” Zaferatos said, resulting in its current make-up.
He said there is a likely chance that Caitac will do the same thing: work to get the land annexed and then sell it off after the land becomes a hundred times more valuable. Developers would flock to it because it would still be less expensive than land within the current city limits, thereby negating infill possibilities.
“This will gut downtown and any possibility of urban village development,” he said. “It’s sprawl and it’s contrary to what the Growth Management Act calls for to first look at infill.”
Both Starcher and Beardsley said they think that isn’t a likely possibility, especially after Caitac has spent so much time, energy and money on the project.
Mischaikov, however, said that while Caitac fully plans to take the property through the entitlement and development process, it might let homebuilders develop the housing units.
Ultimately, the city will have to trust Caitac’s assurance that Larrabee Springs will go forward as planned if the area is annexed, and have a master plan for the area in case it does sell the land, Carman said.
The future of Larrabee Springs
The City Council approved the land supply analysis and will formally adopt the planning commission’s recommendation on May 15.
On May 16, the City Council will submit that recommendation to the County Council, which will decide whether to accept or reject it. If they accept it, Larrabee Springs could start building within the next few years, and wouldn’t be complete for approximately 15 years. If the county rejects the recommendation, both the city and county would then negotiate changes.
While many planners and city representatives disagree on how the city will change, most agree that Bellingham is at a crux where its future could go in any number of directions.
“This is a time of wrenching change and it’s hard for all of us because we like Bellingham the way it is now, but we need to become more of a city,” Beardsley said. “We need to craft it in a way that we keep all the good things and simply make them better.”