The Gristle

King in the counting house
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KING IN THE COUNTING HOUSE: After investing the last decade of city planning effort into the urban village concept, weaving the idea boldly into the city’s comprehensive plan, will the City of Bellingham ever get one?

“Urban village” is planning Newspeak for an old-timey idea, tight, walkable neighborhoods clustered around a corner market or commercial center, a model that dominated the urban landscape before the automobile, supplanted by the distant strip mall and a “geography of nowhere.”

Author of that phrase, James Howard Kunstler, spoke of the transformational effort and its challenges at the Congress for the New Urbanism in May, “re-making existing town centers and in retrofits of sclerotic older suburban parcels,” he noted of the “laborious work in reforming the intricate idiocies of zoning law made possible better development outcomes in towns all over the land that adopted so-called Smart Codes.

“Hopes were lofty in the early days that the public would recognize the self-evident benefits of ditching suburban sprawl for walkable towns, but it didn’t quite work out that way,” he lamented. “The last frantic phase of sprawl-building commenced exactly the same time, jacked on easy lending steroids, and upping the stakes of the battle. That story ended in the baleful collapse of the housing bubble.”

Though applied to the nation, Kunstler’s story might’ve been written specific to Bellingham, where “about 99.5 percent of the new real estate development was done by the conventional schlock sprawl-builders.” The remainder was mostly “botched by compromises made in the planning board battles, and another bunch were either half-assed from the get-go or plain fakes. These traditional neighborhood developments were almost always built on greenfield sites,” he noted.

That pattern of planning chicanery and quackery maps precisely on to Bellingham, where the thing proposed never exactly gets built and land supply is exhausted by dismal single-family stick frames thrown on oversized lots. One wonders whether the problem is more pulled by markets (i.e., unusual housing designs just don’t sell) or pushed by construction skill and interest (i.e., local builders just don’t know how to, or care to, build outside of the box). But undoubtedly a large portion is created by the land flip pump-&-dump, a legal Ponzi scheme where plans for a glorious community development are floated to coax the upzone, and then the value of the upzone is greedily pocketed in a quick property sale to [chuckle] some new owner with no duty to community or glory.

Baited with switches, small wonder Bellingham City Council wrestles with developers who swear they’ll build what they say if only they’re given a little flexibility in their site plans and covenants. Oh, how City Council really wants to kick that football!

In their marathon meeting last week, council members debated the proposed plan for an urban village on King Mountain, a 130-acre parcel east of Walmart, struggling in a special morning session to find confidence to approve it but ultimately appearing to reject the plan.

King Mountain is a moving target. The City of Bellingham pulled out the throne in 2009, annexing the area and declaring King Mountain the city’s 24th neighborhood, with a plan for 6.4 acres as a future park to service an urban village proposed at the intersection of James Street and East Bakerview Road. Developer Ralph Black has a solid history of developing properties, bolstering confidence he will indeed build something valuable there. He has a history of actively supporting city planning goals. Black, however, has no specific history of building urban villages.

Black asked planners for flexibility in developing the site’s master plan, but planners confessed to council last week the proposal lacks specificity and controls to ensure an urban village gets constructed there. Black told council he needs zoning flexibility in order to ensure the financial success of the development. Without zoning changes, no urban village may be constructed there.

The proposal lacks “hard and fast language that we can approve and then understand that that will be built,” Jack Weiss commented. Weiss chairs the council’s planning committee. “It lacks the guarantees we were expecting when we originally annexed the area.”

Between that time and this, though, the real estate crash occurred, the bottom fell out of the market and most of what was proposed earlier is not supportable in today’s real estate market and economy, Black’s people argued.

“What I struggle with is it seems to me if we give up, if we vote to deny, they go back to existing zoning and there’s no guarantee that an urban village will happen,” Seth Fleetwood confessed, wondering how to bind the development to the promised vision. He channeled the concerns of council. “If we vote to approve their proposal, there’s no binding guarantee—I know they’ve provided assurance to their belief that they will do that—but, again, there’s nothing that mandates that that proposal will, in fact, happen.

“If we move to approve with conditions, apparently we’re inviting a lawsuit,” he said.

Michael Lilliquist agreed that the “landmines” left behind in the applicant’s unconditioned version of the master plan made the application difficult to approve. He went further:

“This is the third, fourth, fifth time something like this has happened,” he said, “where something has dragged on too long, where maybe a a fix or compromise was suggested early on, a reasonable way was evident midway, then council is stuck trying to fix things at the end of the process and we often can’t fix it. The fact that this has occurred to us a number of times indicates to me we have a systemic problem that requires a systemic solution.

“There is something fundamentally broken about the process that brings us things like Padden Trails, the Sunset Commons, and King Mountain,” he complained. “There’s something broken here and that frustrates me.”

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