The Gristle

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ALOHA: Hello and goodbye to the Bellingham Public Development Authority, and with it the latest stumble in the city’s journey to employ public land as the nucleus to fuel an urban village planning concept. The BPDA died without a whimper last week after Bellingham City Council declined to discuss restoring the organization’s funding to the mayor’s proposed 2015-16 biennial budget. The BPDA board met the following day and terminated the contract with its executive director, Jim Long. Council may vote to officially dissolve the organization later this year.

Scarcely six months have passed since Executive Long formally presented the BPDA’s concept for an assembly of private and public properties at Army Street adjacent to the Granary Building and entrance to the central waterfront, a hotel complex to provide a vital link to tie redevelopment of the waterfront to downtown and Old Town. That proposal was crippled by a consultants report in July that suggested time was not yet ripe for the type of development envisioned by the BPDA.

Mayor Kelli Linville is convinced the activities of a development authority—essentially reaching out and providing resources to potential private developers—can be performed by a reinvigorated community development section of her Planning Department under the leadership of her new Planning Director Rick Sepler, currently director of community services for the City of Port Townsend. She acknowledged the fine work of the BPDA in assembling agreements with private property owners and performing due diligence on the suitability of the site for redevelopment.

As we’ve noted before, the doom of the BPDA was written the moment the Port of Bellingham refused to fund it as a joint authority—and the only mechanism by which the BPDA could make itself financially whole and sustainable to the City of Bellingham was through the completion of leasable projects on public lands restored to the tax rolls—and it is deeply tragic that buried within early BPDA formative documents are the only sane site plans and street diagrams we’ve ever seen for the central waterfront as competitive alternative to the dismal tyranny of the port’s tunnel vision. Our prediction is—we’ll need a development authority for the waterfront again, and soon.

The mayor pledges that her staff will continue to champion development in that area, but it’s clear her immediate interests lie elsewhere—primarily downtown and along Samish Way.

Another urban village concept falls fallow, and the cause is familiar—the city plays a passive role waiting for the arrival of a talented, ambitious developer that shares an interest in achieving city goals. The city is not a developer and, whether by ability or interest or attitude, that developer does not exist in Bellingham. In the chasm between what planners know can be achieved with steel and brick and what local builders imagine they might push through with sticks and wallboard lies the apprehension and despair of neighborhoods.

Bellingham City Council will consider condemnation proceedings next week on the Aloha Motel, a benighted property being closed room by room by police, fire and health officials responding to drug activities, overdose, criminal and domestic violence and meth contamination. Under neighborhood scrutiny and increased police patrols, dozens of crimes have been reported at motels on Samish Way in the past six months alone, according to police. All of the rooms at the Aloha are heavily contaminated by cooked methamphetamine, fire and health officials say.

Through condemnation the property falls off city tax rolls and becomes another piece of dormant public property. 

There’re reasons not to despair, however.

Perhaps unique among the city’s 25 neighborhoods, Samish desperately welcomes dynamic development to help change neighborhood character along a crime-riddled thoroughfare—the remnants of Old Highway 99—dead as a dinosaur. Adjacent to the university, the strip holds enormous potential for new residential development above commercial groundfloor. In fact, the same market analysis that predicted gloom for the BPDA’s hotel complex was bullish on the potential for residence and office construction in other parts of the city. Finally, the city has access to an asset it’s not had before: A levy approved by voters in 2012 to construct new housing for lower-income families.

In an ambitious meeting next week, planning staff will present early concepts on how those levy funds might be employed to help jumpstart new development in a section of the city that desires it. Access to capital puts the City of Bellingham in control of the urban village concept, a mix of housing types, in a way COB has not been in control in other neighborhoods, becoming in essence the client and contractor for the type of development city planners envision.

More than a decade ago, a creative City Council stood in the intersection of an abandoned fire trap and a hole in the ground, remains of another torched building, on opposite corners of East Holly Street and Railroad Avenue. In December 2000, council exercised the threat of their condemnation authority to pry loose ownership of the old Flame Tavern, which had crumbled past repair. They used their taxing and revenue authority to approve the construction of a building pad to cover the hole (and its profound geotechnical challenges) across the street. They used their taxing authority again to create a ten-year tax exemption for new residential construction downtown, helping to ignite the first substantial new construction in the city’s sad core in three decades. Importantly, no local developer was prepared to take on these projects without the city shouldering a portion of the burden.

Creating that nexus between private and public enterprise was what the BPDA was intended to do. It’s what a creative City Council might do with voter-approved levy funds along Samish Way. Goodbye, and hello.

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September 9, 2014

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