Tower projects 'new animals' for city

Interest sky-high for trio of downtown towers, but how will they change the city core’s status quo?

The Bay View Tower project is one of three controversial downtown towers now proposed (illustration courtesy Zervas Group).

by Heidi Schiller
    After tossing the idea around at parties, Will Honea and other investors began seriously considering the Bay View Tower — a 23-story condo high-rise on State Street — last year.
   “I wanted to do development, but something in line with my own philosophy,” he said. “Something that would promote infill.”
   A year later, Honea’s vision is about to come true.
   Preston Burris, a building official for the city of Bellingham, said he expects the concrete and steel tower proposed at 1217 N. State St. will receive final approval from the city, hopefully at the end of July.
   The project’s review process is uncommon in Bellingham. A Los Angeles firm is reviewing the plans and the city will sign off on the final review they send back, planner Brian Smart said.
   “These towers are a new animal for us, and we don’t have the capabilities to review them,” Smart said.
   This type of review has always been an option for applicants, and Smart said he anticipates the other proposed downtown towers — Morse Tower on Railroad Avenue and Cornwall Place on Cornwall Avenue — to use the same process.
   The developers hope to break ground in the fall and complete the project in 18 months.
   Within the first few days of going on sale at the end of May, about half of the units sold, Honea said. Currently, 106 of 124 are reserved, giving doubt to the naysayers who thought the market for such a project didn’t exist.
   Once the project is approved, those pre-sales — essentially reservations — convert to purchase and sale agreements, he said.
   Now that the project is about to be given the green light, and with two more towers in the pipeline, what type of precedent does Bay View Tower set for the future of condo high-rises in Bellingham?
   Discussions on the topic can be overheard at busy business lunches, over after-dinner drinks and around friends’ dinner tables. How will it affect Bellingham’s quality of life? What about affordability? And will its approval signal a race in development to raise Bellingham’s vertical scale?

A change in Bellingham’s quality of life: for better or worse?
   Carlin Freeberg, a member of the group Pro-Whatcom who has lived in his birthplace of Bellingham for 74 years, said he opposes the trend in condo high-rises because they change Bellingham’s tone into that of a city, and because they encourage growth.
   He said cities depersonalize people because their high population density takes away the personal contact between residents, he said.
   Freeberg said he doesn’t think that high-rises pay for infrastructure, and he also doesn’t think Bellingham needs to accommodate as many people as its population projection says it does, an infill excuse used to justify the need for towers, he said.
   But Honea doesn’t see it that way.
   “A lot of people are coming here whether or not we build a high-rise,” he said. “We’re responding to a demand.”
   While Honea said the idea of quality of life is highly subjective, the trend in condo high-rises blends an urban experience with Bellingham’s small-town feel, which, in his opinion, results in a higher quality of life.
   This type of development encourages more residents to locate downtown, to work and shop, making for a more sustainable downtown core, he said. Especially with rising gas prices and the world swiftly approaching its peak oil production, creating a community that is less focused on cars is important to its future, Honea said.
   Bellingham has a limited land supply, Honea said. If you took Bay View Tower’s 124 units and turned them into high-end single-family residences taking up about 15,000 square feet of land each, he said, they would require approximately 43 acres.
   Bay View Tower will sit on half an acre. Infrastructure such as roads, schools, fire and police departments already exist in downtown Bellingham and the development will include safe and ample parking for its tenants, he said.
   “It makes sense for the direction we want to go for our growth management,” Smart said of the project. “Infrastructure already exists; (there is) not additional taxing of the system to create new roads, water lines and sewer systems. It keeps our downtown vibrant and keeps people downtown both to live and to work.”
   The Bay View developers have also signed off on a $353,600 public amenities package to the city. If the project had been proposed later, after a park-impact fee ordinance passed, the developers would have had to pay that amount in fees and decided to donate that amount anyway, he said. The donation will go toward downtown cultural amenities such as the Depot Market Square project and the Campaign for the Arts.
   “It caught us off guard and we were surprised by his generosity,” Smart said of the offer.

Do these projects drive prices up?
   The leasing office for the Bay View Tower project has a prototype stainless steel and marble kitchen including an optional built-in espresso machine and wine cooler. Several unit color schemes line the wall — the more expensive option featuring espresso-colored wood.
   The units’ prices range from the low $300,000s to a few large, view condos selling for more than $1 million.
   Initially, the developers discussed including an affordability option with Kulshan Community Land Trust, but ultimately laid the idea to rest because of the high cost for this type of construction.
   “We’re not building an affordable (housing) project here,” Honea said.
   Honea said that high-rise construction is more expensive and thus requires higher sales price per square foot than low-rise, “stick-built” structures.
   “A successful and vibrant downtown requires a mix of housing prices that accommodates all income ranges,” he said. “Sometimes the market requires the moderating effect of governmental incentives in order to make that happen.”
   The developers decided not to apply for the city’s multi family housing tax exemption program because they didn’t want to deal with the extra hurdles, he said. In the end, they didn’t feel any value would be passed on to the condo owners because of it.
   Freeberg said he is concerned that this type of project will drive up housing costs because it attracts buyers from other urban areas of the country who have a lot of money.
   Honea said policies that encourage infill will necessarily drive up cost, but it’s better to have density than take the easy way out and sprawl, he said.
   “There has to be attention paid to affordability,” he said. “But that is a political question, not one for developers to solve, he said.”

A rise in upward living?
   The main public concern about the project has been its height, Smart said. Not necessarily that it will block views, but more how it affects the entire view of the city, he said.
   “Its just scary. It is change,” Honea said. “But if we didn’t do this project, someone else would.”
   While he thinks the project’s height is a valid concern, and agreed that there should be reasonable height restrictions for downtown development, he said he doesn’t think the building’s height is out of scale.
   The Bellingham Towers building is 212 feet tall, he said. Because Bay View Tower’s type of construction leaves only one foot between stories, it will only be 28 feet taller than the Bellingham Towers — at 240 feet tall — putting it in scale with its surrounding structures, he said.
   The planning department is currently reviewing whether to add possible height and bulk restrictions to the downtown, said Planning Director Tim Stewart. Currently, downtown has no height restrictions.
   Stewart said the planning department will first decide whether such restrictions are needed and then discuss alternative ways to institute them.

More on the way?
   “Anyone’s success in development responds to the market,” Honea said.
   He said he thinks there is a market for a few more condo high-rises, but said Bellingham will never be Seattle or Hong Kong.
   “Three or four years ago I would have never envisioned this, having three or more condo towers downtown,” Smart said. “I have no idea if there will be more, but if they keep selling and people keep inhabiting them, the market’s still there.”

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