Westerop takes plans for massive pair of 18-story condominium towers to city for pre-approval; others in the works as well
Condos, condos, condos. In many parts of Bellingham recently, new condo construction has been inescapable. With land becoming more scarce and expensive, and the city viewing infill as the best way to combat sprawl, condos � which have gone up by the dozens in the last few years � will continue to be a prominent part of the landscape in the near future, especially in downtown, Old Town and Fairhaven.
And for locals whoùve been rendered agape by the size of buildings such as Fairhavenùs Harris Square and downtownùs Morse Square, developers, city officials and real estate agents say those are just the beginning of bigger things to come.
As an example, said Bellingham senior planner Chris Spens, he recently met with developer Rick Westerop to discuss Westeropùs preliminary plans for twin 18-story residential towers on the old Morse Hardware site, near his Morse Square project. Westerop could not be reached for comment on the proposed project at press time.
Meanwhile, downtown developer Bob Hall, who partnered with Westerop on Morse Square, said heùs seen plans for a 20-story downtown condo unit, but declined to say where or name the developer.�
There are five towers now being proposed downtown, with the smallest one being 14 stories tall,� Hall said. �Itùs going to be a whole new world downtown.�
While no official plans have been submitted to the city, Spens said because thereùs no height limit on buildings downtown, and the infrastructure and zoning is in place, rumored condos of up to 20 stories are “real-life propositions.”
While the ability to build condos has always existed in the city, the desire to do so hasn’t, mostly because there was little demand among buyers.
“Before, I think people viewed them as a step down from a house,” said Kerry Helm, a sales manager at Wm. T. Follis Realtors, who’s sold real estate locally for 18 years.
But, as the Bellingham housing market began to blow up several years ago, and two-bedroom bungalows in the Lettered Streets neighborhood started selling for $140,000 (and now go for almost twice that), the condo option started looking more appealing to many buyers.
“When housing prices went up three to four years ago, people found that if they wanted to purchase a house, rather than rent, their options were limited,” said Windermere’s Kurt Swanson, a local real estate agent since 1990. “Condos fill a void. Unlike 10, 15 or 20 years ago, the negative connotation has gone away. Condos are now a viable real-estate investment in Whatcom County.”
Hall, who along with Westerop was one of downtown’s original condo developers, said many people thought their initial downtown endeavor was risky, mostly because it had never been done before. Hall, however, believed otherwise.
“I owned about 25 luxury apartments downtown and they always rented out very easily to professionals and had a waiting list,” he said. “I realized there was a need in the community to have this higher-level urban-living experience.”
He was right.
While Hall had a backup plan to run the building as an apartment in case units didn’t sell, he never had to worry about that, as the 82 units were quickly purchased.
“Right now, we still have 30 people willing to take the next thing available,” he said.
Fairhaven developers were greeted with equal success when they began building condos last year, as units in Fairhaven Gardens, Fairhaven Heights, Harris Square and 12th Street Village were all mostly reserved by this summer.
Swanson said condos also began springing up a few years ago in the north end, where there’s more available land, and thus prices are a bit lower.
Also, as the Bellingham property grab unfolded, people were looking to get in on the market wherever they could.
“(The years) 2000 to 2003 is when the push toward condos hit hard,” Swanson said. “And the smart developers looked for an opportunity to meet needs.”
Indeed, as evidenced by figures compiled by the city, Bellingham, in recent years, has been in a condo craze, and anticipates it to continue. Activity includes:
• 199 units completed downtown between 2002 and this month.
• 435 additional units in application or under construction downtown, anticipated to be completed by the end of next year.
• 335 units under construction and/or in design review/application in Fairhaven.
• More than 30 proposals for condo/apartment/-plex buildings of various sizes, at various areas, around town.
“I’ve worked with the city for 15 years and up until the last five years heard nothing but fright and disdain about condos,” said Spens. “All of a sudden, they’ve become not only feasible but desirable.”
In addition to being more affordable than single-family homes, condos also put greater numbers of people in areas centrally located to entertainment, jobs and services, like Fairhaven and downtown and, as the as areas continue to develop, Barkley Village, Bakerview, Cordata and Guide Meridian.
“The idea of condos is that all your basic services are pedestrian,” said Hall.
That type of lifestyle, where entertainment and shopping are centrally located to dwellings, has been particularly attractive to people reaching retirement age, as evident by the demographics of some downtown and Fairhaven condos.
“If you reach retirement age, do you want to be in a satellite community or in a densely packed urban environment? People are choosing the latter,” Hall said.
Another large percentage of Bellingham’s condo owners are young professionals, who can work and play near their homes.
“It’s coming to the point where if you want to live on (the west side) of the freeway, get a bay view and spend less than $250,000, it’s a condo,” said Hall.
Helm said downtown and Fairhaven condos are still pretty pricey for young couples and professionals, so they’re more likely to be found in condos farther away from downtown.
“In the north end and West Bakerview, condos are more affordable, selling for about $200,000 or $225,000,” he said. “A few years ago you could find an affordable home here, or a fixer-upper, but now they’re gone immediately. Now condos are a good starter house. They’re an alternative, affordable house and that goes a long way.”
In addition to accommodating the masses and providing a more affordable housing option, some business leaders also believe condos will breathe new life into the city, especially in the evening, and create some new economic opportunities for existing and future businesses.
“Historically, the downtown area of most small downtowns has been an urban center during office hours, with people leaving at the end of the day,” said Ken Oplinger, president of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce. “I think (condos) will help with the vitality of the city because you’ll have more people living in an urban area.”
Phyllis McKee, president of the Fairhaven Association, believes condos will add to the neighborhood feel of Fairhaven.
“I like the idea of having people living in the neighborhood,” she said. “It’s nice to have people call it home and walk to various places, as opposed to driving somewhere. It becomes much more of a neighborhood in that regard.”
McKee and Oplinger said they also see businesses, such as small grocery stores, nightclubs, restaurants and salons, being able to capitalize on condos.
The condo craze doesn’t come without complications, though.
On one hand, said Spens, from a planning perspective condos can be highly efficient, providing more units per parcel and the possibility of few cars on the roads, which is good for the environment.
However, he’s concerned that as new buildings go up and land values increase, some single-family homeowners in neighborhoods with multi-family zoning may sell their property. Once they’re gone, the property could be upscaled and gentrified, further increasing land values.
“I’m afraid the Bellinghamster homeowner will be the new endangered species,” Spens said. “I’m all for condos, but if they price folks out of their homes and neighborhoods, we should be thoughtful and careful of what we’re doing.”
Hall has concerns of his own. He believes city officials, while previously working on the Bellingham Urban Fringe Subarea Plan, which includes population projections and estimates on infill capacity, grossly underestimated the number of people who can be accommodated by condos downtown and on the waterfront, including the New Whatcom/G-P development.
A recent land-supply update by the city estimated that approximately 813 housing units will be constructed in the central waterfront area over the next few decades.
Hall believes that number could be easily surpassed within a few years.
“With updated figures, there might be no need to expand the Urban Growth Area, which would actually meet the mandate of the Growth Management Act, of not expanding the city limits if they can find a way to fit the population inside existing corridors,” Hall said.
In the meantime, city officials, developers and real estate agents believe not many neighborhoods will be exempt from condomania.
“I think they’ll continue to be a larger and larger part of the landscape for one reason: There’s not a lot of room for single-family homes here. It’s all pretty much been scarfed up, bought or committed to,” said Helm. “It’s hard to create more land and, with the way the City Council and others here feel, people want to limit growth. By doing that, they run the housing prices and land prices up and there’s a scarcity of it, so I think condos are the future.”
Bellingham’s had a Bigfoot sighting — BigFoot Java that is.
The regional coffee chain, along with a Subway sandwich shop, will be the lead tenant in a 7,200-square-foot retail facility to go up on the west side of the West Bakerview Fred Meyer Development, said James Hamm, development representative and leasing agent for the new development.
Principal owners of the approximately $1.5 million project, Hamm said, will be Bigfoot Investment Group and Trimark Petroleum Group, both led by Puyallup’s Al Jiwani, founder of the BigFoot Java chains.
“We feel very good about the contingency there, with Fred Meyer,” Hamm said. “We have a BigFoot in front of a Fred Meyer in Puyallup already and it’s been a good mix. We like being in front of major retailers like that.”
Hamm said the city’s projections for growth in the north end also made the location desirable for Jiwani, who opened a BigFoot on Sunset Drive, near Lowe’s, this spring. Bakerview will be the 17th BigFoot location.
The new development, Hamm said, will feature a detached BigFoot site, possibly a 24-hour drive-through location, and main building, which can accommodate tenants in spaces of from 1,200 to 1,800 square feet.
Jiwani has had success in the past with projects similar to the Bakerview endeavor, such as his developments in downtown Puyallup and on Puyallup’s South Hill.
“Most of our centers get a variety of tenants that range from retailers to food tenants to service tenants,” Hamm said. “For this building, we envision one other food seller and four other retailers.”
The new development will complement two other buildings that recently opened at the Interstate 5 and West Bakerview Road location. Also at the site, in addition to Fred Meyer, are Blockbuster Video, Hairmasters Salon, Oishii Teriyaki, Century 21, Advance America, First Horizon Mortgage, Silver Nails & Spa, Great Clips, Papa Murphy’s, Sunshine Cleaners and Baskin Robbins.
Hamm, who works for Seattle’s Commercial Development & Consulting, said the new building will match existing structures in design and characteristics.
Construction, he anticipates, will begin sometime this fall and be completed by late spring. A general contractor has yet to be selected for the project.