To Carrie Veldman, project manager at local development company The RJ Group, her nearly finished Peabody Townhomes are an ideal urban infill project.
Urban infill is city planning lingo for development in areas that are already built up. The three townhouses a block off Meridian Street on the 2400 block of Peabody Street are on an old parking lot that’s close to downtown, public transportation and other services. For taxpayers, the project costs less than sprawl or building on the fringe of developed areas because it doesn’t require new roads or much other infrastructure.
“It’s just good planning principles to use space that is already serviced by streets, transit, shops and grocery rather than continuing to build on the fringe,” Veldman said.
The Peabody Townhomes are the first big project to use the Infill Housing Toolkit, a piece of municipal code that the Bellingham City Council passed in August 2009. City staff developed the toolkit to allow a variety of different types of smaller and denser housing to be built in the city, with a goal of reducing development on farmland and working forests.
Peabody Townhomes is the first big infill toolkit project so far, but a handful of projects are in the planning and permitting stages. City planners say these first infill toolkit projects could serve as examples and present options for how the city could change as baby boomers get older and millennials enter the housing market.
The toolkit was designed to be used in single-family zoned areas, city planners said, but public opposition led City Council to ban it from those neighborhoods before adopting the ordinance.
The Peabody Townhomes are in an area where zoning allows condos and apartments, which would house more people in the space then the townhomes will.
“We didn’t maximize our profits on this but it gave us the opportunity to test the waters of the toolkit,” Veldman said.
The Peabody Townhomes have seven condo units and include about 26 bedrooms, Veldman said. Though they don’t maximize the density of the site, the infill toolkit code allows the buildings to be closer to the neighboring houses than they otherwise could.
Providing housing options
The infill housing toolkit allows 11 new types of housing, including a variety of mother-in-law-style housing, detached cottages, apartments over garages, duplexes, triplexes, townhouses and small developments of single family homes with shared courtyards.
The housing types are mostly smaller than other housing in Bellingham.
“That is attractive to the emerging demographics such as millennials and baby boomers,” Bellingham city planner Chris Koch said. “Those demographics are looking for smaller homes.”
Koch said not allowing the toolkit in single family zoned areas makes it less effective at reducing sprawl and less attractive to developers. The toolkit is designed for owner-occupied housing, and there’s less incentive for developers to build that in areas where they could build apartments.
But many homeowners in single family neighborhoods don’t want their neighborhoods to get denser.
When Patrick McKee, Chairman of the Sunnyland Neighborhood Association, moved into his home in a single-family-zoned portion of the neighborhood, he never imagined that the neighborhood could be changed to be denser.
“When I shopped for it in 1996 I purposefully went to areas that I knew were zoned for single-family use, and many people do that,” McKee said. “People who live here didn’t consider that they were going to bring these multifamily housing types into these single family neighborhoods.”
McKee likes the design standards of the toolkit, which require houses to fit the old craftsmen style homes and character of the neighborhood, at least more so than non-toolkit projects, but he doesn’t think it’s necessary to add density in single-family neighborhoods.
Population in the city has grown less than recent projections have predicted and McKee suspects the people who would be interested in owning a house on former farmland wouldn’t be interested in living in a dense downtown neighborhood.
“The people who are gobbling up farmland in 5-acre ranchettes are not the people who want to buy on a small lot in Bellingham,” he said. “There are ways to protect farmland, but cramming people into Bellingham is not one of them.”
How much growth can Bellingham accommodate?
The City of Bellingham is wrestling with how to handle potential growth as city staff work to update to the city’s 20-year comprehensive plan by mid-2016, as required by the state’s Growth Management Act.
The mid-range population projections from the state’s Office of Financial Management forecast about 30,000 new residents in Bellingham in the next 20 years. The city can accommodate those residents in its current Urban Growth Area, said Rick Sepler, City of Bellingham Planning and Community Development director.
Planning staff and City Council are looking at adding land at the edge of the city that would accommodate more single family housing and would be necessary to accommodate the number of new residents predicted in the higher-range growth forecasts.
For now, the toolkit is less about dealing with growth and more about providing more housing options, City of Bellingham senior planner Kurt Nabbefeld said.
“We believe that many of the housing forms associated with the toolkit are what folks want,” Nabbafeld said. “They want more options and these forms are geared toward that.”
Toolkit won’t be forced
Unlike Tacoma, Seattle and other Puget Sound cities, Bellingham isn’t ready for single-family neighborhoods to get more dense, Sepler said.
“The city has a checkered history of advancing infill projects. Forcing it hasn’t worked really well,” he said. “What generally helps infill succeed is a growing demand for the product it provides, and our market is just not ripe yet.”
But the market could be ripening. If housing continues to get more expensive, Sepler thinks more people will begin to support denser housing in single-family neighborhoods.
Housing in neighborhoods zoned single-family is getting more expensive and many of their residents are aging, Sepler said. As property taxes go up, aging residents may look to leave the neighborhoods. Eventually, the city has to provide more housing options or neighborhoods will gentrify, Sepler said.
Sepler’s waiting to see if the infill toolkit projects currently underway change people’s minds about the Infill Housing Toolkit.
“Do they fit in? Do they achieve the notion of preserving character? We’ll let folks come to their own conclusions on that,” he said. “If I was an existing resident in a single family neighborhood I would want to make sure anything that came into my neighborhood fit in. They deserve that.”
Oliver Lazenby, associate editor of The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or firstname.lastname@example.org.