Old Town gets a makeover


A new sub-area plan proposed for Old Town creates an urban village concept with a seven-story height-limit, a new floor-area-ratio system and zoning changes.

The city’s planning department released a draft proposal of the plan on Oct. 5, which it has worked on since 2003.

The area — bounded by Roeder Avenue and Bay, Dupont, Bancroft and G streets, and including parts of the Lettered Streets Neighborhood and the Central Business District — was identified in the city’s 2006 Comprehensive Plan update as a priority urban village that needed a master plan.

The proposed plan calls for the use of a floor-area-ratio system to determine building size, with a maximum height limit of 75 feet — roughly seven stories.

The floor-area-ratio system is a new policy for the city, but has been used in other communities such as Portland and Seattle. It is a system that allows developers to build taller structures if they use a smaller site footprint, or use more of a site’s footprint if they choose to build shorter structures. The city would also give floor area bonuses for developers who incorporate LEED building standards or affordable housing components.

Currently, the CBD section of Old Town has unlimited height limits, and the remaining Old Town area has a three-story, or 35-foot-tall, height limit, city planner Tara Sundin said.

The proposed plan states that building heights should be lower in priority view corridors, seven of which are identified in the plan, such as the Whatcom Museum overlook to Bellingham Bay. Height limits should also be lower for structures built near Whatcom Creek or adjacent to landmark buildings, such as the Territorial Courthouse.

The plan also identifies zoning changes for the area. Currently, much of Old Town is zoned for commercial and light-industrial uses. New zoning would encourage mixed residential-commercial and some light industrial uses.

Sundin said the city envisions live/work and artist studios, theaters, antique shops, cafes and restaurants in the area, as well as light industrial uses such as small handicraft, marine and manufacturing businesses.

However, the city would discourage large, loud and malodorous industrial uses incompatible with a residential and pedestrian-dominated environment, she said.

The new zoning policy would be a departure from the area’s current predominant uses. Northwest Recycling, which handles most of Whatcom County’s business and residential recycling and has been located in Old Town since 1923, operates on approximately six of the area’s blocks.

“In the long term, if this is going to become an urban village, then Northwest Recycling probably is not the best fit,” Sundin said.

Representatives for the company could not be reached for comment, but in a public meeting for the proposed plan, owner Brian Parberry said the new vision for the area doesn’t provide for recycling and industrial uses, and that he was okay with the idea of moving, according to the city’s notes from a public meeting.

The city has been working with Northwest Recycling to find a new location, but the company would be able to stay however long they wanted, Sundin said.

“They would become a nonconforming use, and they would basically be grandfathered in,” she said. “But it limits what they can do in terms of building new things or expanding.”

The proposed plan also encourages street-front buildings and an upper-story setback policy in which structures must be set back 15 feet from the sidewalk after the first three stories, Sundin said.

Local developer Fred Bovenkamp, who is currently developing several projects in Old Town, said he was very pleased with the proposal, especially the floor-area-ratio system and the LEED bonuses.

“I believe the floor-area-ratio is, frankly, exactly what was needed in this area,” he said. “It will actually make it viable for building in Old Town.”

Bovenkamp is even considering resubmitting designs for his project at 1401 F St., the former Hempler’s BB Meat & Sausage Co. site, in order to take advantage of the design, height and bulk policies in the proposed plan.

Michael McAuley, vice chair of the Lettered Streets Neighborhood Association, said most of the neighborhood’s residents feel positive about the plan, although a small, vocal element of the neighborhood feels the plan will lead to building sizes that are too large for the area, as well as increased traffic and more modern building designs. But McAuley said he approved of the plan.

“It’s sort of Bellingham’s skid row,” he said. “So any redevelopment down there is good for the area.”

McAuley said he is concerned, however, with the potential for tall buildings blocking view corridors, despite the plan’s consideration of that issue, because the city has no legal basis for protecting views.

The planning commission will host a public hearing for the proposed plan on Nov. 8, and Sundin said she hopes to present it to City Council the first quarter of next year for adoption as part of the city’s comprehensive plan.

At that time, the city will solicit redevelopment proposals for a mixed-use project on city-owned property at 600 W. Holly St., the former ReStore site.

For more information on the plan, visit the city’s Web site at www.cob.org/pcd/planning/OldTownSub-areaPlanning.htm.

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