The Gristle

Open Secret Disclosed

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

OPEN SECRET DISCLOSED: The purchase of the long-empty JCPenney department store building and a partnership to redevelop it into rental housing for middle incomes was an open secret in downtown Bellingham; and it was kept a secret for a good reason, that premature disclosure of the negotiation between sellers and partners might topple the most strategic, timely purchase and sale agreement in the city’s history.

Under the proposal officially presented this week to Bellingham City Council, the city will purchase the 60,000 square foot structure for $2.85 million and retain ownership of the land. The city will also enter into a long-term land lease with local private developers Jeff McClure and Jeff Kochman, who will undertake the financial risks of developing the property for affordable housing in the downtown core.

The agreement requires the partners to purchase the building, and provides an option on the land itself under favorable terms for up to 15 years; but the lease also provides for a degree of control by the city on development timetables and streetscape improvements for as many as 90 market-rate apartments above commercial retail and office space. Structural engineers estimate the existing bones of the building can support an additional two floors, bringing the total to four.

The property has been almost entirely vacant since JCPenney left the downtown in 1988 and relocated to Bellis Fair Mall—part of that era’s great reatil exodus from town centers across the country, draining those urban cores of economic vitality. The vacant shell itself—an airless, window-less department store from a bygone era—proved a challenge to adaptive reuse without significant financial outlay. While Bellingham’s downtown has almost completely recovered from the loss of its retail center, this one major vacancy remained.

“It’s located right in the middle of our downtown. But it is also a challenge in building reuse today, because it just doesn’t work as modern retail in downtown,” Tara Sundin, COB’s lead manager for Community and Economic Development, reported to City Council this week.

Council was not surprised by her report; nor is anyone who is paying attention to murmurs downtown.

Early conceptual sketches have papered the walls of architect McClure’s downtown offices for several moons; and a low-threshold buzz hummed among downtown merchants in the City of Subdued Excitement.

Mayor Kelli Linville was candid to the Gristle about the firming proposal in July, and scheduled advanced disclosures with Cascadia Weekly and the Bellingham Herald late last month under the provision that the information would be embargoed until City Council could be formally notified in their first meeting after their summer recess. Both publications agreed to keep a lid on a simmering story.

In her methodical managerial style, the mayor was even more thorough earlier in the summer—carefully floating the concept to major property owners, developers and anchor business owners downtown.

“We had meetings with three of the biggest developers and business owners downtown,” Linville confessed. “The reception from two was extremely positive. They know the building, and would never buy it or invest in it as part of their own portfolio or business plan, but they understood its economic drag on all of their properties and tenants. And they know it could be 20 years or more before private investment stepped forward to take ownership to redevelop that building on this particular site.

“Yes,” she admitted, “it is an advantage to a particular developer for the city to partner on the purchase of the land. But that developer was also ready, in a way others were not, to step up and assume the risks of that development.

“In the end, our plan is to recoup the money that the city invests,” Linville said. “We are not planning on owning the property in the long term, and the terms of the agreement encourages our partners to buy it from us.

“But for our involvement, I don’t think anything would be happening on that property for a long time,” she said. “I am a capitalist. I believe in private investment and allowing the private sector to do things they are good at. But the public sector is also good at doing certain things. We’re good at kickstarting a project that is never going to happen—or not happen soon—without our support and investment.

“I believe we have a strong position based on public benefit—not just because it is going to be housing in a form that is needed in Bellingham, but because it involves the revitalization of downtown,” Linville said. “Our financial position is strong, and whether through lease or purchase the city will recover our outlay.

“It really sets the tone for what people think is happening downtown. When they look at that block, and they believe it is dead, that sets a tone and an expectation for the entire downtown.”

“Those of us who spend time downtown know there’s not a lot of vacancy,” Sundin agreed. “But this very large vacant building creates a negative impression of the overall health of the downtown. This is going to change everything downtown. I think we’ll see more investment, more interest, for all of downtown.”

“In the 25 or 30 years since that building has been vacant, I have been sitting here and I cannot tell you how ecstatic I am that something is happening,” Council member Gene Knutson said. “To the downtown business people who hung in there, didn’t give up, didn’t pick up and walk away, it is going to pay off now. You are going to see a totally renovated downtown. We had a mall recession years ago, and that mall recession is now over.”

“It’s people that make downtowns work,” Linville agreed. “The more workforce housing we create downtown, the more people are going to be going out, eating and shopping, and using our downtown center—throngs of people, people who live there.”

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Past Columns
Ranker Unanchored

January 16, 2019

‘Alternative Methods’

January 9, 2019

Top Stories, 2018

January 2, 2019

Et Tu, #MeToo

December 26, 2018

Turn That Corner

December 19, 2018

Paradigms in Collision

November 28, 2018

Leftover Turkey

November 21, 2018

The Divisions Between Us

November 14, 2018

The Map is the Territory

November 7, 2018

Climate Kids

October 31, 2018

What The Market Won’t Bear

October 24, 2018

As Above, So Below

October 17, 2018

As Below, So Above

October 10, 2018

A Civil Disagreement

October 3, 2018

Zombie Pipeline

September 26, 2018

Too Little, Too Late

September 19, 2018

Consent of the Governed

September 5, 2018

Let the People Decide

August 29, 2018

Events
Today
Bellinghamster One-Act Theater Festival (BOAT)

7:00pm|Bellingham Theatre Guild

A Forest of Words Poetry Competition

10:00am|Whatcom County

Cascadia Weekly's Fiction 101 Contest

10:00am

Call to Artists for Spring Juried Exhibit

10:00am|Jansen Art Center

Literacy Council Seeks Volunteers

10:00am

English Country Dancing

1:30pm|Bellingham Senior Activity Center

Wine Tasting Social

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Incognito

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Basic Emergency Preparedness

6:00pm|Ferndale Library

Winter Soups for the Body and Soul

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Bangladesh Travelogue

7:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Balkan Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Good, Bad, Ugly

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

Choir of Man
Tomorrow
Bellinghamster One-Act Theater Festival (BOAT)

7:00pm|Bellingham Theatre Guild

Cascadia Weekly's Fiction 101 Contest

10:00am

A Forest of Words Poetry Competition

10:00am|Whatcom County

Call to Artists for Spring Juried Exhibit

10:00am|Jansen Art Center

Literacy Council Seeks Volunteers

10:00am

Wild Things

9:30am|Lake Padden Park

Deep Forest Experience

11:00am|Rockport State Park

Books and Bites

1:00pm|Blaine Library

Peace Vigil

4:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Art Auction Gala

5:30pm|Lightcatcher Building

Photography Exhibit Opening

6:00pm|Fourth Corner Frames and Gallery

Family Story Night

6:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Quieting the Monkey Mind

7:00pm|Village Books

Urinetown

7:00pm|BAAY Theatre

Space Trek

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

Sanford-Hill Piano Series

7:30pm|Performing Arts Center Concert Hall

Courthouse Vaudeville

7:30pm|Territorial Whatcom County Courthouse

VoicePlay

7:30pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Los Vivancos Choir of Man
Saturday
Bellinghamster One-Act Theater Festival (BOAT)

7:00pm|Bellingham Theatre Guild

Cascadia Weekly's Fiction 101 Contest

10:00am

A Forest of Words Poetry Competition

10:00am|Whatcom County

Call to Artists for Spring Juried Exhibit

10:00am|Jansen Art Center

Literacy Council Seeks Volunteers

10:00am

Deep Forest Experience

11:00am|Rockport State Park

Urinetown

7:00pm|BAAY Theatre

Space Trek

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|Ferndale Senior Center

Larrabee Old Growth Exploration

9:00am|Fairhaven Parkway Park & Ride

Martin Luther King, Jr. Conference

9:00am|Whatcom Community College

Winter Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Skagit Eagle Festival

10:00am|Skagit County

The Basics of Sprouting

10:00am|Blaine Library

Winter Fitness Hike

10:00am|Whistle Lake

Plant Classes

10:00am|Garden Spot Nursery

Skagit Eagle Festival

10:00am|Rockport, Concrete, Marblemount

Deep Forest Experience

11:00am|Rockport State Park

When voices are silenced

12:00pm

Washington Remembers

12:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

MONA Openings

1:00pm|Museum of Northwest Art

Travel to the Philippines

1:30pm|Blaine Library

Rioja Tasting

2:00pm|Siefert & Jones Wine Merchants

Bellingham Roller Betties' Double Header

5:30pm|Lynden Skateway

An Evening with the Artist

6:00pm|Gallery Pegasus

Be IN the Show

6:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

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Unity Ball

7:00pm|The Majestic

Blue Abode Comedy Show

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The Shame of Losing

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Fire and Grace

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Hot House at the Courthouse

7:30pm|Territorial Whatcom County Courthouse

see our complete calendar »

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