Former gateway to city seeks return to glory days
In the summer of 1957, the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce unveiled its new tourist-information center, a 48-foot tugboat named Shamrock II that was hauled from the harbor to its final resting place at the intersection of North Samish Way and Consolidation Avenue.
At that time, North Samish Way was the entrance to Bellingham for anyone traveling north along Highway 99, also known as Pacific Highway 1, so the location of the new tourist center was ideal.
But Interstate 5 changed all that. By 1962, tourists and residents were bypassing Samish Way in favor of the new freeway. For example, in 1950, North Samish Way saw an average of 38,000 daily car trips. Last year, the city calculated 12,900 trips per day on that stretch of road.
The auto-oriented businesses along the road — mostly drive-ins, motels and service stations — were forced to cope with the new era of transportation, an era that left little room for drive-by attractions.
Over the years the area has developed without much direction, but residents and local businesses hope to change that. More than 50 people attended public meetings last month to discuss the future of redeveloping the area as an urban village.
But why an urban village?
“The real impetus was more about increasing safety by reducing traffic speed and generally making the area nicer and an urban village just seemed like the way to get there,” said Allen Matsumoto, president of the Sehome Neighborhood Association.
From its humble beginnings as a gravel road, North Samish Way has always been an important Bellingham thoroughfare. The auto-friendly nature of the corridor, however, has created an environment abundant in parking spaces but lacking in crosswalks and pedestrian access.
Both the city and the Sehome Neighborhood Association have identified the area as underutilized, and the success of combining residential living and commercial business in areas such as Fairhaven and downtown Bellingham made planning for an urban village seem like a perfect fit.
But business owners along the street are split about the future of an urban village.
“I think it will be very hard to build an urban village here because there’s so many existing businesses and there’s no attraction here,” said Brian Lee, who manages the Aloha Motel, one of eight motels along the street. “I think it’s a good idea but I’m not sure how it can be done. We’re still working on that.”
Whether or not the area becomes a true urban village, Jozef Bosman, co-owner of Diego’s Mexican Grill on North Samish Way, said he is hopeful that the project will improve bike and pedestrian access.
“I definitely think it would increase our business and make the neighborhood nicer,” he said.
For Jim Carney, business manager of the Gateway Centre Executive Suites located behind Boomer’s Drive In, now is the best time to start planning for redevelopment.
“Once the waterfront redevelops, people are going to be going through Samish Way to get down there,” he said.
The next Old Town?
Compared to Old Town, where the Bellingham City Council recently approved an urban village plan, Samish Way has many more landowners and businesses to weigh in on the project. Both areas are similar, though, in that they lack good public space and have a main road onsite, said city planner Darby Galligan, who is working on the Samish Way project.
The lessons learned from the Old Town project, such as how to structure public meetings and what kind of development incentives to include, will be applied to the Samish Way project. Though the Samish Way project will mirror the Old Town plan in its structure, the outcome of the planning process will be quite different because Samish Way has a different character, Galligan said.
“The key to urban village development is to recognize the historical and cultural character of the area and then craft an urban environment that builds on and enhances those attributes,” Galligan said during a presentation at the first public meeting on June 5.
Strengths and weaknesses
At the first public meeting on the issue, the crowd was asked to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the area to get a better picture of the its character. The responses that came back seemed to build a consensus among the group that the Samish Way corridor is an ideal location that just needs some attention.
Some of the top strengths listed were:
- Good connections to surrounding areas. North Samish Way is a major access road for those traveling to Western Washington University, downtown and the future waterfront site.
- Large lot sizes. Most of the businesses along the street are located on large parcels of land, on which there is little infrastructure. Thus, it would be easy to redevelop.
- Lots of local businesses. Many of the restaurants and motels are locally owned.
When the group began talking of the area’s weaknesses, an air of cordiality hung in the room. No one pointed fingers.
Some of the top criticisms were:
- Too much traffic moving too fast.
- Not friendly to pedestrians and bikers.
- Lack of public space and parks.
- Crime. The Sehome Neighborhood ranked third last year among Bellingham’s 23 neighborhoods in reported incidents according to the Bellingham Police Department.
One of the other weaknesses that was mentioned is that the Samish Way corridor lacks character and doesn’t have major attractions. This didn’t just happen overnight, though.
Growth along the street has been sporadic ever since I-5 was built in the 1960s, said local photo-historian Jeff Jewell. And as drivers ignored North Samish Way, businesses had a hard time establishing themselves among the ebb and flow of traffic.
“The businesses there come and go,” Jewell said. “They tore down the Denny’s and put in a Taco Time. They tore down the Burger King to put in a Wendy’s. As soon a new thing comes the old thing is gone. It’s all disposable architecture — by it’s very nature it was not meant to have permanence.”
Take for example the Shamrock II. This icon of Bellingham tourism had a short life along North Samish Way after I-5 was completed. No longer useful, the boat was set afire in a controlled burn by the Bellingham Fire Department in February 1962.
Developing the future
City planners are aiming to present the plan to City Council in September 2009, giving staff more than a year to work out the details of the project. If the plan passes, changing the zoning along the street from commercial to mixed-use, there is no guarantee that development will occur or that it will include residences such as condos or apartments.
What a master plan like this does, though, is provide incentives to developers and lay out the ground work for an urban village, Galligan said. It also gives the city an idea of what kind of street improvements, such as bike lanes and tree-lined sidewalks, citizens would like to see in the future.
In the end, this makes developers more comfortable doing high-end projects and it gives residents a sense of pride in their neighborhood.
“This is a neighborhood that knows their neighborhood,” Galligan said.
When: July 10, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Where: Elks Lodge, 710 S. Samish Way
What: City staff will summarize the input they have received during the previous three meetings and discuss alternative designs.
The process: City staff will work on finalizing a master plan for the area. Once complete, the proposal will go before the Bellingham City Council — the goal is September 2009, said project lead Darby Galligan. The council will decide whether to change the zoning from commercial to mixed-use and approve the development regulations.