Raising an urban village

While the City of Bellingham is actively planning for urban villages, developers are still struggling to get financing for mixed-use...

By Isaac Bonnell

Remember the towers?

During the height of the condo boom, several different condo projects were threatening to dethrone the Bellingham Towers building as the tallest building in town. Bellingham, it seemed, was destined for perpetual growth, upward and outward.

One-by-one, all of those plans have gone out the window. The market has changed and no one knows exactly when it will bounce back. But one thing is for sure: The next phase of growth won’t be the same.

“I don’t think we’ll see the kind of growth we saw in the 2001 to 2004 range,” said Bellingham planning director Tim Stewart. “That was hyper-insanity and it will take time to recover from that.”

Though development may be at a standstill, Stewart and his staff have spent the last two years laying the groundwork for the next 20 years of growth, with a focus on urban villages. Thus far, the city has crafted new zoning plans that encourage urban villages in Old Town and Samish Way and is currently working on one for the Fountain District.

“Urban villages aren’t for everyone, and they won’t replace the single family residence with a garden and work-shed,” Stewart said. “But now is the time to plan for this type of growth.”

As early as 2002, developer Rick Westerop was planning to build an 18-story tower across from what is now the Depot Market. Since the housing bubble burst, though, he has scaled back the project to four six-story mixed-use buildings with apartments, not condos.

But that doesn’t mean that demand for the city lifestyle has faded.

“There’s no doubt about it that city living is in demand,” Westerop said. “People really want to be downtown.”

Since 2000, Westerop has built about 250 residential units in Bellingham, most of them downtown in places like Morse Square. Though condos aren’t hot anymore, demand for rentals is increasing, Westerop said.

“I’ve always had great luck with renting downtown,” he said.

Mixed-use buildings

The backbone of urban village design is the mixed-use building, with retail or office space on the ground floor and residential units above.

It’s not a new concept — just one that is slowly making its way back into American cities, said Jeff McClure, a principal architect at RMC Architects. Since World War II, most American cities have kept commercial and residential uses distinctly separate, creating vast suburbs and strip malls.

“There was an idea that commingling these uses would create a bad living environment and it drove things to be more spread out,” McClure said. “I’m not sure what it was a reaction to, but it really bled the life out of cities.”

Mixed-use development never really went away, but now it has come back into the spotlight thanks to a “perfect storm” of economics and demographics, McClure said. A large population of baby boomers is retiring and looking to downsize and be close to amenities. At the same time, a younger generation that grew up in suburbia is flocking to higher density areas for the culture and lifestyle.

“I think there’s a greater desire to be connected to a community and that means living in a little bit denser environment,” McClure said.

Not all high-density areas are good at creating community, though. There’s good density and bad density, McClure said.

“We’ve all seen pretty bland apartments that don’t distinguish themselves,” he said. “But a well-done mixed-use development brings a certain vibrancy to the area.”

Mixed-use buildings and urban villages often take into consideration the development of public space, everything from parks to bike lanes to sidewalks. The idea is to build for walkability — everything is close enough that you don’t need a car.

To ensure that Bellingham’s urban villages are the good kind of density, Stewart and his staff of planners have drafted a set of design guidelines to help create a vibrant community. These include things like landscaping standards and minimum storefront requirements.

“Many people enjoy being around other people. We are social beings,” Stewart said. “Providing great places for that to happen is what this is all about, and Bellingham is very well positioned to take advantage of that.”

Can it be done?

Westerop said he supports the city’s push for urban villages because it will meet a growing demand to live in and around the downtown core. But developing mixed-use buildings isn’t cheap, and finding a bank to finance an expensive project right now is incredibly difficult, especially with a slow market for residential and commercial space.

“I think the condo market will be gone for the next three to five years,” Westerop said. “And now it’s extremely difficult to get rid of commercial space. We’re going to have to wait even longer for the commercial market to come back.”

So if the city really wants to see these urban village plans become a reality, developers are going to need some incentives, Westerop said.

“I’ve always maintained that the impact fees and related soft costs are a killer to these developments,” he said. “The city can plan everything they want, but if they’re counting on the private sector to build it, I think some of these costs need to be reexamined.”

Fellow developer Troy Muljat from the Muljat Group agrees. Last summer, Muljat proposed a three-story, mixed-use building on Lakeway Drive near Civic Field. The project, however, is on hold indefinitely.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever actually build the Lakeway project,”  Muljat said. “I don’t know if I have enough anti-stress medication to go through the permit process.”

After spending five years getting the property rezoned for mixed-use and designing the building, Muljat said the whole process has left him a bit disillusioned.

“I think mixed use is a little overrated and not always the highest and best use for a site,” he said. “I think mixed use is great from a design standpoint, but from a financing point of view, everything has to go perfectly for the developer to see the payoff.”

Blending residential amenities with commercial uses such as restaurants and retail stores is a constant dilemma, Muljat said. And both uses require parking, which adds extra costs to a project, especially with underground parking.

But if a developer can find a balance between residential and commercial uses — and have it pencil out — mixed-use development is worth the investment, Muljat added.

“Mixed-use development is a double-edged sword,” Muljat said

So will Bellingham ever see any of those condo towers? Probably not for a long time, said McClure. Though the city is planning for these urban villages to be pockets of density, they will still be scaled to fit in with the city character.

“I also don’t see us erecting hugely dense areas with tall buildings,” McClure said. “These urban villages will mean something else here in Bellingham than they would in a larger city.”

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