Neighborhoods look to revamp business districts

Height/bulk restriction slows progress on Fairhaven plan

Julianna Guy, Cathy Starr, and Bob Sanders, members of the Guide Meridian/Cordata Neighborhood are working to incorporate more parks into their neighborhood plan.

Nicole Lanphear
   Samish Way hotels, Fairhaven tall buildings, and the new shopping developments along Bakerview may be just a few of the many issues affected by the revising of Bellingham’s neighborhood plans.
   Nicole Oliver, communications director at Bellingham Planning and Community Development, said many neighborhood plans have not been updated since the ‘80s. In order to give a voice to the neighborhoods, the planning department handed the task of updating the plans to individual neighborhood associations.
   Five of Bellingham’s 23 neighborhoods submitted their proposals last year, and the remaining 18 are preparing their revised plans for the Dec. 1 deadline.
   “Neighborhoods need to focus on what are their biggest issues, prioritizing those issues, and trying to find what parts of the neighborhood plans need to be updated to best address those issues,” Oliver said. “It could be anything from changing the text, to something as complex as a whole new plan.”
   Among the agendas of some neighborhood associations are issues such as more parks, traffic concerns, and building restrictions.
   “We don’t know what the proposals are going to be,” Oliver said. “But the important thing for businesses to realize is all this work is under way, and they should be aware of it and pay attention. They should start attending neighborhood meetings, especially neighborhoods that have commercial centers or big transportation and traffic issues to make sure that their business issues are being represented, not just from a resident perspective, but from a resident, business-owner perspective.”

Looking to change
   One neighborhood looking to reach a consensus of ideas between business owners and residents is Fairhaven.
   Fairhaven Neighbors’ president Vince Biciunas said the major change proposed in the Fairhaven district is a height limit in the areas where there are currently no height restrictions for buildings, which is a separate proposal from the revisions of the neighborhood plan. The neighborhood association sent out a survey and received a 36-percent return rate. The surveys showed most residents preferred lower buildings to preserve the friendly and historic atmosphere of Fairhaven.
   Oliver said the lesson to learn from Fairhaven is that businesses should work with the neighborhood associations right away.
   “Fairhaven is a fairly highly regulated neighborhood that has really tight design standards and design codes,” Oliver said. “The Fairhaven Neighbors are working with Fairhaven merchants to build a consensus about the height restrictions. Parking is also an issue.” (See sidebar for more on the Fairhaven debate.)
   Whereas Fairhaven is mostly concerned with height restrictions, the Sehome Neighborhood Association is working on heavily revising their neighborhood plan, with a large focus on the Samish Way corridor.
   Allen Matsumoto, president of the Sehome Neighborhood Association and the Sehome representative to the Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission, said Sehome residents felt the Samish Way strip was a priority issue, along with traffic, historic preservation and design and architecture standards.
   In particular, the hotels on Samish Way are an issue the neighborhood association will address. Six of the hotels on Samish Way received the highest amount of 911 calls in the past three years, compared to other city hotels.
   “We would like to have the property rezoned, so the property owners could find a more lucrative use to transition the property to in the future,” Matsumoto said. “We need a better understanding of what needs these hotels fill today and what use they provide to the larger Bellingham community.”
   The Guide Meridian/Cordata Neighborhood Association is focusing their efforts on incorporating more parks in the area, and also encouraging more development around Bakerview Road. Julianna Guy, the treasurer and co-founder for the Guide Meridian/Cordata Neighborhood Association, said Bakerview businesses have become a central hub for the neighborhood.
   “With this very large influx of people and development along Bakerview, the retail and professional people feel there is a market up here,” Guy said.
   Because of the development of the area, Cathy Starr, president of the association, said it is the association’s job to help regulate the development.
   “People know when they move to Cordata that they are moving into development,” Starr said. “It has been happening and will continue to happen. Our role as a neighborhood association is monitoring all of that.”
   For the revision of the plan, Guy said the association has concerns about some of the narrow streets where fire trucks can’t get through. But for businesses, the whole northern part of Bellingham should be golden land for businesses, she said. Because more people are flowing into the Guide Meridian/Cordata area, the client base for businesses is expanding.
   Other neighborhoods are not changing their plans quite as extensively, Oliver said. According to Downtown Renaissance Network director Kirsten Walker, they are not changing their plan, because it was one of the few plans updated more recently.

Getting involved
   The Fairhaven Neighbors plan on hosting more discussions and meetings throughout the spring and summer, and Biciunas encourages business members to attend.
   “Your opinion does matter,” Biciunas said. “If this (height) change doesn’t go through this year, it will be discussed and proposed next year. It is not an issue that will go away.”
   The Sehome Neighborhood Association anticipates setting up a round-table discussion with specific businesses, such as the hotel owners, to get their input on current land use as well as future plans for their businesses.
   “We are definitely going to propose some changes to land use around their property, so it is critical to understand where the businesses are at,” Matsumoto said.
   Architect Dave Christensen is working with the Sehome Neighborhood Association to design more sustainable solutions for the Samish Way corridor. He said the association has worked to recruit businesses, but the businesses have not responded as they anticipated. At a recent meeting, the neighborhood association invited five business owners, and only one attended.
   “Neighborhoods are more organized than business communities,” Christensen said. “The Fairhaven Neighbors are against tall buildings, and the business community is trying to get organized. This will happen all over the city. Nobody wants urban sprawl, but nobody wants a higher density in their neighborhood, either.”
   The Guide Meridian/Cordata Neighborhood Association is also recruiting voices from businesses. The group is even planning an old-fashioned neighborhood picnic in June to reach out to community and business members.
   “As we go forward with our neighborhood plan, we very much want to include representatives from business,” Starr said. “We have to be inclusive, and so we have attracted a number of business leaders to our committee, and we are looking for more representation.”
   Oliver said the city is moving toward a system where neighborhood updates will be more frequent.
   “We have never done such an education of the public to inform them and provide them with resources and technical assistance to guide them toward creating their own plan amendments,” Oliver said.
   She said it is difficult for city planners to know what key issues need to be addressed within neighborhoods, so this allows neighborhood associations to submit their own proposals to identify what is most important to each area.
   Because the plans have not been updated in so long, the planning department waived all fees for neighborhood plan revisions for the 2006-2007 years to encourage neighborhoods to update their plans, Oliver said.
   The Planning and Community Development department created a Web site as a resource for the neighborhoods that includes blurbs about each neighborhood, zoning maps and a resource kit. For more information, visit the planning department’s Web site at

Fairhaven associations at loggerheads over process

   The process of neighborhoods working on their own updated neighborhood plans is a new idea and one that has had a few hiccups along the way, especially in Fairhaven. Nicole Oliver, the communications director at Bellingham Planning and Community Development, said one of the goals of giving individual neighborhoods control over revisions is to open the floor for public debate and discussions.
   In the Fairhaven district, the debate between Fairhaven Neighbors and many local business owners is centered around the docketing of a proposed height and bulk restriction in the areas of Fairhaven that currently do not have height restrictions.
   Fairhaven Neighbors, the neighborhood association recognized by the city, submitted the application to the city that included this proposed restriction last December. Vince Biciunas, the president of the group, said they began to discuss the issue that November and so they had little time to get the application ready for the Dec. 1 deadline.
   The application went to Planning Department Director Tim Stuart, who initiated the proposal for review. Planning department staff will now review the proposal and confirm it aligns with the city’s overall comprehensive plan and is backed by public consensus.
   Phyllis McKee, secretary and treasurer for the Fairhaven Village Association, found out about the proposed restrictions in February. As a business owner in Fairhaven, she was concerned about the restrictions. Her other concern was the fact that she and many other property owners hadn’t heard about the proposal that would affect commercial property in the core of Fairhaven.
   “We can’t catch up fast enough to actually influence the issue,” McKee said.
In the application requirements, the applicant must show consensus for the issue, and in the case of the Fairhaven height restrictions, the Fairhaven Neighbors submitted the application on the premise that they would send out a survey and hold a public meeting in the early months of 2007.
   The Fairhaven Neighbors have sent out the survey and held the meeting as stipulated in the application, but McKee said there was no opportunity for property owners to criticize the real issue at hand, which has been the process. She feels the commercial property owners were not given enough notice or time to make a change to the proposal already under way, which did not meet the consensus requirement in the application.
   Biciunas said she couldn’t comment on the situation because the Fairhaven Village Association is concerned about the application process, which was not something she could control.
   Oliver said there is still time to change the proposal and voice concerns, since the planning department staff has not made recommendations yet or held the public hearing, which is now scheduled for July. The planning department has worked with both groups, suggesting using mediation services to reach an agreement.
   “If this level of discord continues, it might be a better idea to postpone the issue until next year,” Oliver said. She said while the planning department could second-guess the application process, the goal is still to initiate dialogue among each neighborhood.



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