The Gristle

On the Spectrum

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

ON THE SPECTRUM: In a convoluted and disappointing process, Bellingham City Council last week overrode the objections of vocal critics and amended the Sunnyland neighborhood plan to include a variety of housing forms on a four-acre parcel formerly owned by the state Dept. of Transportation, the DOT property known as Area 8 in the neighborhood plan.

Concerned that hazy zoning could permit the development of a garish, out-of-character apartment complex, the Sunnyland Neighborhood Association in 2012 attempted to docket the item for a site-specific rezone that would lock out those options. It was a canny gambit employing the city code, but city staff recommended against the docket, arguing that code limits a site-specific rezone proposal to the actual owners of a property.

“The city imposed useless default zoning in 2007,” Sunnyland neighbors complained, “and it is the city’s responsibility to carry out the pubic process necessary to change the default zoning. Sunnyland residents are entitled to some certainty as to what kind of development can take place next door in Area 8. It has been five years since the city imposed default zoning. Appropriate, compatible, long-term zoning for Area 8 is long overdue.”

There, however, the matter rested until the property owner came forward with a proposal to rezone the property—not for an apartment complex, but for flexible designs that could include duplexes. Neighbors were infuriated about a corrupt process that favored a developer over a community that must bear the impacts of that development. Neighborhood attempts to docket were ignored; requirements to docket the specific proposal for detailed public review were also ignored.

For Bellingham, it is an old story.

Imagine a spectrum of proposals representing a range from godawful to not-so-bad. On this line, we might place any number of projects either planned or built in Bellingham over the past 25 years. At one end we might place expansions to Silver Beach and Geneva (and their general wrongheadedness for Lake Whatcom); Breeza (haute McMansions littering the sandstone bluffs of a previously unspoiled bay, far from urban services); Fairhaven Highlands (and its loathsome corruption of local politics, fought against most fiercely—and ironically—by residents of Breeza); Larrabee Springs (also known as Caitac, and its similar corrupting influence on planning and public policy); University Ridge (a 500-unit dormitory planned in Puget neighborhood, far from the university); Padden Trails (an “infill” project similarly planned far from urban services at the edge of Samish neighborhood); perhaps at the center is the Waterfront District (good idea, poor plan); running to various urban village concepts such as Old Town and Fountain District; the re-striping of Cornwall Avenue to permit bike lanes (a death-match throwdown with neighbors); onward to small-lot housing innovations in Happy Valley; and onward again to the redevelopment of Samish Way (do it, already).

On to this spectrum we might place a proposal to build high-density housing in a variety of forms on a benighted four-acre lot a stone’s throw from the freeway in Sunnyland neighborhood. This project we might place, depending on execution, to one side or other of the Cornwall re-striping—a project that while scorned and angrily resisted today, may well be considered an asset to the neighborhood in future years.

Look: There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with an effort to expand both the variety and availability of housing stock in a community that suffers from severe pressures on both, nor to increase the density by infill of one of the least dense cities in Western Washington (and which is conversely one of the most desirable cities in which to live) as trade-off against continued greenfield development and sprawl.

In 2008-09, the city sponsored a series of well-attended, well-received design charettes that produced the InFill Toolkit, shorthand for a series of housing forms different from the traditional detached single family dwelling unit. Housing construction was comatose, and its slow revival offered opportunity for change. It was well understood at the time that 1) these new forms would, almost by definition, radically challenge existing concepts of neighborhood character and 2) this new direction would preempt and override older existing neighborhood plans.

Perhaps this concept was always doomed, with the doom baked right into its central conceits.

Builders complained of land prices in existing neighborhoods, and that they were disinclined—either by experience or interest—to experiment with new housing forms. And, for them, it is just simply easier to build in the middle of nowhere than to endure the agitation of neighbors and neighborhood organizing.

No reason for the City of Bellingham to go to war, then, with neighbors and neighborhood plans in the vacuum of plans offered by builders. No reason to tackle specific revisions of neighborhood plans absent specifics. But if a builder did come to the city with a plan consistent with the goals of the Toolkit, what then?

From the standpoint of representative government, either the goals associated with greater density and variety of housing forms are worth pursuing against opposition or they’re not worth pursuing. Neither an argument for or against growth, so few developers produce plans consistent with city goals (see the list above) those that do deserve some encouragement. And while no one could be a fan of the sort of ad hoc process and opportunistic spot zoning at the center of the city’s recent revisions, it is difficult to imagine how the goals of infill might be achieved in any other way. How?

Sunnyland is a terrific neighborhood. It also, and not coincidentally, has some of the craziest zoning in the city, with residential flowing to a patchwork of commercial and light industrial. Many residents operate businesses out of their homes, producing a flourishing studio arts community. What it tends to lack, in comparison to other vital and central neighborhoods, are dwellings for renters.

At some level, the Sunnyland struggle is a class struggle—those with no property rights (renters), those with limited property rights ((neighboring property owners), those with full property rights (the owner with title to a specific property)—and its injustices are jagged iron. Neighbors call for wisdom—and they vote!—but ultimately policy and response to this struggle belongs to city government.

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