Live/work housing on Ellis Street

Project features small units above shop spaces


Drawing courtesy of Grinstad & Wagner Architects.

John Blethen’s live/work building on the 1700 block of Ellis Street will include six units, each with more than 750 square feet of living space above 600 square feet of commercial space.


A new six-unit project near the intersection of Ellis Street and North State Street will bring an old twist to the modern world of commerce.

The two-story building is designed to be a live/work building where residents live above the place where they work. It will be the first such building to break ground in Bellingham.

John Blethen


“The idea is a really old idea, living above where you work,” said developer John Blethen. “That’s how it was done before it became easier to travel around. You didn’t get in a car and drive to the suburbs.”

Each unit includes approximately 600 square feet of office or commercial space on the ground floor, which faces the 1700 block of Ellis Street. Each living space upstairs will be more than 750 square feet and will have views over Whatcom Creek.

This type of living arrangement may not be for everyone, Blethen said. It is designed to suit a single person or a couple who would benefit from having a designated work space nearby. Blethen said he envisions the project appealing to a variety of business people, from jewelers to Web designers to lawyers.

“I think the world is changing and this is probably going to catch on,” he said, adding that he got the inspiration for this project from similar buildings in Europe. “This has been in the back of my mind for years.”

The project is currently awaiting permits, but Blethen said he is hopeful that the building will be completed by January 2009.

For the city, permitting live/work buildings can be challenging simply because the current building code does not include specifics for this type of project, said city planner Chris Koch.

In 2003, Koch worked to include a definition of live/work buildings into the land-use code, but specific regulations were left out because the city has received so few live/work proposals and wanted to give developers options when designing such a project.

One issue that the city is concerned about is the type of commercial activity that takes place in live/work buildings, Koch said. Most office uses are easily compatible with the residential atmosphere, but it gets complicated when drawing the line for light industrial uses, such as a wood shop or a clothing manufacturer, which might be noisy neighbors.

“It is a very new product that hasn’t been tried and true in Bellingham,” Koch said. “There’s always that apprehension of testing the market, but I think that there is a market for it. I’m anxious to see someone finally take on the task.”

David Moody, a real estate agent with Fairhaven Realty, understands the challenges of testing the live/work market. For the past year, Moody has been marketing four remodeled units in the former taxidermy building on Astor Street as a potential live/work space.

So far the building has attracted commercial interests only, a salon and an acupuncturist. Moody said he does get inquiries for residential uses in the remaining two units, but it is hard to find tenants who are interested in both living and working there.

“I think it’s a good market and I think people like the idea, but it’s a pioneering market,” Moody said.

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