Revisiting the downtown mall
Project would have changed the face of the downtown and likely rendered Bellis Fair a moot point — but at what cost?
|A proposed downtown mall, as seen in this rendering, would have altered the face of present-day Bellingham. A California-based development company proposed to build a two-story, enclosed mall with three major department stores on Railroad Avenue between Chestnut and Magnolia streets, but plans never got off the ground following a pivotal 1982 election that prevented the construction of two downtown parking garages. Image courtesy of the City of Bellingham.|
by Dan Hiestand
Envision the elements that make up Bellis Fair.
Stores and cars, customers and kiosks. Now imagine picking up those components, moving them due south, and dropping 450,000 square feet of that retail space in the heart of downtown Bellingham.
In the early 1980s, this scenario wasn’t too far from becoming a reality.
Roughly 25 years ago, Sutter Hill, Ltd., a California-based development company, proposed to build a two-story, enclosed mall with three major department stores on Railroad Avenue between Chestnut and Magnolia streets. The plans to build, however, never got off the ground due in large part to the city voters’ unwillingness to provide public funding for two parking garages and a utility corridor that would have supported the mall.
The idea for a downtown mall was eventually defeated — opening the door for David Syre, founder and CEO of Trillium Corp., to build Bellis Fair on the Guide Meridian.
“It would have been an entirely different Bellingham,” said Brian Griffin, current chairman of the Depot Market Square Committee, as well as a former proponent of the downtown mall. “It’s hard to imagine what (downtown) would’ve been.”
The downtown mall is just one of many proposed development projects that never came to pass for a variety of reasons — and it’s also a good example of how decisions made now have the power to transform cities in the future.
Sitting in his office in 2006, John Kole has no doubts about his actions in 1982.
That was the year Kole, who owns John Kole Vehicle Repair in Bellingham, authored an initiative measure called Proposition 1 that appeared on the city voting ballot. The measure prohibited the city from using its credit or money to build parking facilities in connection with commercial development – in this case the downtown mall.
The initiative narrowly passed (52 percent to 48 percent of 15,862 voters) and the parking garages — which would have cost the city $15.5 million at the time — were never built. Immediately following the election, Sutter Hill announced it was dropping its plans to build the downtown mall, a $50 million project.
“Without (public money) to put it together, it’s economically impossible,” said Phil Davidson, a Sutter Hill representative, in The Bellingham Herald two days after the November 1982 elections. “We can’t pass that cost on to our tenants.”
In turn, Kole felt it was unfair to pass those costs on to the public, he said.
“I felt it was unfair that (the parking garages) would be subsidized,” Kole said. “I didn’t feel it was appropriate for the public to pay for these parking garages. I felt the mall developer should be the one that’s involved with that. And that started it.”
Kole, who has run for city council four times (unsuccessfully), has been politically active for much of his time in Bellingham. He originally came to the area as a student at Western Washington University, and he’s been in town ever since.
“I was kind of the Tim Eyman of the ’80s for Bellingham,” said Kole. “People hate Eyman (conservative political activist) because he’s always bringing up something that half of them are for and half of them are against.”
To garner support for the initiative, he canvassed the city with his wife and children — literally going door to door.
“My wife and I went through town, through all the neighborhoods, with our kids in a wagon,” he said. “At the time, we were able to get about 3,000 people registered to vote, and a lot of people were unaware that there was an issue or that there was a mall being thought of being built downtown.”
For Kole, the downtown mall development was essentially a nonissue, he said. His passion was to prevent public funding for the garages.
“I had no aversion to the mall (downtown),” Kole said. “I was not even thinking of anything like Bellis Fair.”
Griffin and Kole were perhaps the most visible spokespeople on the issue.
“It was a long time ago, and it brings back strong memories,” said Griffin after reading his guest column in the Herald regarding his opposition to the initiative. Its passage weighed heavily on Griffin, who was the co-chairman of Forward Bellingham, a group that opposed Kole’s initiative. “(I felt) intense disappointment. We knew that the developer (Sutter Hill) would immediately leave, and they did. And without a committed developer, nothing else could happen.”
Developer Ken Hertz, the city’s mayor from 1976-1984, said he was pulling for the downtown mall, but he knew a lot had to happen for that to occur.
“In order to do the downtown mall, several things had to take place,” Hertz said. “First, we had to acquire a lot of property. And that meant that if we had people in the way that simply did not want to sell, we had to go through the condemnation process. And we made it clear up front that, in fact, we were prepared to do that. Most people were inclined to agree with it, and there was very little condemnation required, but there was some.”
A lack of land was the biggest issue Syre had with the downtown proposal.
“It would have been fine if it could meet the needs of the major retailers,” Syre said of the downtown plan. “But it’s very difficult for a downtown to accommodate that kind of expansion.”
Syre, who said he had nothing to do with the parking garage issue (both Syre and Kole said they didn’t even meet face-to-face until after the election), said he knew Kole’s initiative was important to determining the future development plans of the city — which he hoped included the construction of a mall on what was then the outskirts of Bellingham.
“I knew the public officials at the time had put a lot of weight on that issue,” Syre said. ” I knew the city would be more receptive to other community development (after the initiative passed).” Enter Bellis Fair.
Guide the way
Griffin doesn’t mince words when it comes to the way he feels about parts of North Bellingham, particularly along the Guide Meridian near the mall.
“Bellis Fair … has created a traffic monster and sprawl that doesn’t appeal to me at all,” Griffin said. “Had we been successful building a downtown mall, maybe we’d have a vibrant downtown community.”
He also admits he doesn’t know what would’ve happened had the mall been built downtown.
“It’s very difficult (to say what the city would be like with a downtown mall). I’ve asked myself that question a number of times. The downtown mall might have failed. Traffic might have been awful in the downtown and it isn’t now. I abhor the north end of Bellingham. I think it’s awful. But maybe we would have brought that kind of overcrowding and un-aesthetic growth to the center of the city. I guess my answer is I’m not sure.”
Syre said Bellis Fair’s location has allowed other retailers to move into the area, and helped the local economy.
“It’s created a regional infrastructure for retail in Whatcom County,” he said. “It was probably the economic driver of the decade.”
Hertz, who pushed for the downtown mall, said he also supported Bellis Fair when the downtown proposal failed. He even worked at Trillium for more than a decade after his two terms as mayor.
“I absolutely supported Bellis Fair,” Hertz said. “In fact I joined Trillium. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. I wanted to see a nice facility go in.”
However, he does wonder what the city would have and could have been like with the downtown facility.
“I can only point to places like Bellevue Square,” Hertz said. “I thought it would have been a huge plus, and I still think it would have been a huge plus. I think we would have seen residential develop around it because retail draws residential … I think we would have seen a whole different central core of the city.”
Kole said he has no regrets with how things have developed in Bellingham.
“I’m glad we did (the initiative campaign),” he said. “It was a great exercise. It does prove that one person or a group of people – not very many – can make a difference.”
And play a major part in shaping the face and future of a city.
|Other famous ‘what-ifs’
Like any city, Bellingham is rife with grand plans that never quite make it out of the drawing-board stage — let alone permitting. Local architect Dave Christensen talked to the BBJ about a few of these projects that, for whatever reason, just never made it to reality.
Bellingham Medical Center Tower
Cornwall Place (again)