The Gristle

The Real Social Network
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THE REAL SOCIAL NETWORK: More than 120 Bellingham business owners and residents gathered downtown this week to discuss their concerns about a proposed 42-unit apartment complex for low-income households downtown. Constructed, the complex would be the third to serve potentially disruptive tenants on a single block in the downtown core.

Whatcom County Council member Ken Mann encouraged the meeting between owners and residents, city staff, and the project proponents, Catholic Housing Services, and their sister agency, Catholic Community Services.

CHS is a non-profit that provides housing to lower income families and those with special physical and mental needs. CCS provides services to that housing.

Mann said he encouraged the meeting after he had heard from several business owners who were concerned the project had been misrepresented as a mixed-use, variable income residence, and that it was moving forward without a great deal of public process from the City of Bellingham. Mann is the County Council representative to the Opportunity Council board of directors, a non-profit with a similar mission. He also serves on the county Health Board that sets policy for issues related to mental heath and substance abuse. Other elected officials from the City of Bellingham and Whatcom County Council were also in attendance.

“I believe I have a duty to participate in this project evaluation,” Mann explained. “The project is funded with city, county, state, and federal tax dollars and tax credits. We have a duty to spend that money wisely.

“I care deeply about downtown and supporting its vibrant growth,” Mann continued. “The same people who want to reflexively green light this proposal are many of the same people who would want full review if a private, for-profit developer was proposing a strip mall on this site.”

Several business owners echoed these thoughts, supportive in principle of laudable goals of reducing homelessness, yet concerned that the economic climate downtown is fragile. A careless project, a tender imbalance, could tip it over.

The City of Bellingham originally purchased the .7-acre parcel from the city’s parking fund, intending to build new parking downtown; however, the city decided in April 2011 to surplus the property for less than its appraised value, at a loss of about $300,000, to CHS and invest the revenue to develop properties adjacent to Central Avenue and the waterfront.

That waterfront development has stalled, the parking fund is drained, parking continues to be a problem downtown, and business owners and residents express growing concern about building even more units to serve potentially disruptive tenants on a single block downtown. Several expressed concerned that an aggregate of 140 units of such housing creates a concentration of troubled households that is abnormal to a cross-section of city residents as a whole.

“Frustration, frustration, frustration,” one business owner confessed to Mann, “that is the continuing theme we, the downtown business owners, continue to face as our city and county councils allow the permitting and building of low-income, alcohol related, mental illness business to occupy what seems like every open or available space and building in the City of Bellingham’s downtown.

“Downtown,” the owners continued, “has been allowed to be a catch-all for all that is unpleasant to deal with. In our neighborhood, we are facing the challenge of having five new or renewed liquor licenses in a two-block, one side of the street situation. Not only has it become dangerous for our customers, it is challenging to promote ones business of a pleasant shopping experience.”

The concern, several business owners and residents noted at the meeting, is not strictly one of people with lower incomes living downtown—most welcomed a populated, livable city center—but of a general lack of support and bad policy in dealing with the issues that arise. City promises and covenants for security, for parking, have not materialized, they noted.

Following just a single slender thread in a complex social fabric, Bellingham Police have long held a policy of focus and containment of disruptive elements downtown. Whether through the systematic closing decades ago of neighborhood corner bars and clubs in favor of their cluster downtown or a catch-&-release consequence of an over-full jail, police policy has had the effect of concentrating those elements in the downtown core, the so-called “Battle Zone.” We can debate the merits of this—hey, that’s where the services are! versus considered use of limited police resources versus the imprisonment at extreme cost of people who might otherwise be assisted through counseling and a handful of chemicals versus the unintended consequences of mixing the mentally ill in with a raucous night life, and all that with the drug culture and a criminal element downtown—but the fact is police policy must be met by responsive public policy. The mentally ill cannot be simply dumped downtown because there is nowhere else for them and police are too understaffed or underfunded or underinterested to bother.

All of this said, statistics are clear that incidents of crime and domestic unrest fall off dramatically when people are safely housed. And there simply is no better remedy for the plight of homeless people than to get them off the streets, where they are frequently preyed upon by criminals and an often bewildering social scene.

Acknowledging the complexity of issues, “the bigger question of long-term vision for this area is important no matter what project is proposed,” Mann said.

Indeed, it’s a meeting that should have happened six months ago.

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