Alley Without Allies

Stateside project moves forward

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

North State Street neighborhood is bracing for impact.

The city just gave the greenlight for a seven-story student apartment complex that will cover an entire city block near the roundabout to Fairhaven. “Stateside” will be the tallest development built downtown since the 1970s—construction will last nearly three years.

It’s not what early supporters bargained for.

Stateside was supposed to be just the type of new housing downtown Bellingham needs. It was supposed to be affordable and super-sustainable, and it was supposed to include the HUB Community Bike Shop that had been a neighborhood staple for nearly two decades.

But for the past year, city planners turned a blind eye as Spectrum Development Solutions mischaracterized its project to neighborhood businesses, encouraged city officials and advocacy groups to gain their support, and used flawed data to show that Stateside would require only minimal parking.

Dozens of nearby businesses warned the city that the Seattle developer wouldn’t go far enough to improve neighborhood infrastructure or provide realistic alternatives that would encourage Stateside residents not to drive. Neighbors said that without stronger mitigations, the project would choke businesses, displace more than a dozen trade jobs, and destroy the unique culture of the neighborhood.

It wasn’t enough.

Last week, the city approved Spectrum’s Land Use Permit and its request to build half the parking required by code—a 100-stall parking garage for more than 500 students.

The Grand Vision

Early last year, Seattle architect Mithun began promoting Spectrum’s plan for “apartment homes for the ‘missing middle’ workforce and students” at 903 and 929 State St. In its project description, Mithun said, “The goal is to ensure that as our communities grow, we continue to have in-city apartment housing for students, nurses, police officers, graphic designers, chefs, teachers, and other professionals that want to live in locations convenient to education and job opportunities. This type of housing is critical if our neighborhoods and cities are to remain economically successful, socially diverse, and culturally vibrant.”

Influential local organizations like Sustainable Connections and Downtown Bellingham Partnership wrote letters to the city supporting the (then) 486-bed project, saying the development was so progressive that most residents wouldn’t need a car. DBP Executive Director Alice Clark wrote, “[Spectrum has] demonstrated an appreciation for the quirky and outdoorsy vibe that exists here, and they have consciously worked to integrate the alley neighborhood anchors like the HUB into their project.”

Mithun said it would draw inspiration from the “Alley District,” the collective of artists and tradespeople that occupied the block for almost 20 years, and played host to events like “Art on Tap” and “Bike to School and Work Day.”

“We place a strong emphasis on sustainability, health and wellness and working with local businesses and nonprofits,” Mithun said during design review. “The current alley has a funky, Northwest appeal, and [if granted a parking reduction] we can pay homage to that character.”

Mithun said building less parking would allow Spectrum to provide a more “people-centric” version of the project with more amenities, including green roofs on three alley-facing courtyards, 14 car-share vehicles for residents, and a new home for the HUB on the adjacent South Bay Trail.

It didn’t work out that way.

The Fine Print

Last fall—after neighborhood meetings and public comment periods were over—Spectrum Principal Gabriel Grant acknowledged that Stateside would be marketed exclusively to students, telling nearby business owners, “We can’t discriminate. Do we think it will be exclusively students? No…it will be a very, very high percentage of students.”

The company squeezed an additional 27 beds into a revised floor plan. It removed amenities like meditation and music rooms to fit more five- and six-bedroom apartments, raising the bed count to 513. Last month, Spectrum revised the plans again, removing the “green roof” courtyards that covered the parking garage below. Now, students with courtyard-facing apartments will look down on the concrete floor of the parking garage.

Spectrum offered the the HUB Director Kyle Morris just 590 square feet of space facing the South Bay Trail. The Hub’s original location was 3,000.

When Stateside is complete (projected opening is in 2021), two 70-foot-tall monolithic brick buildings will tower over one- and two-story businesses across the street. A student lobby and leasing offices will take up the majority of the storefront space on State Street, with just one commercial space on the corner of North State and East Laurel streets.

Nothing’s wrong with that, according to Bellingham’s city code and guiding documents.

Stateside falls just outside the area the city considers “pedestrian-oriented commercial streets,” which means Spectrum isn’t required to include commercial space on the buildings’ ground floors. City leaders relaxed development rules to encourage growth when they updated Bellingham’s downtown plan in 2014—there are no building height limits downtown, and views aren’t protected.

Bellingham needs more housing. With a growing population and low rental vacancy rate, city officials are under pressure to reduce inflated rents, and relieve demand on neighborhood homes filled with Western students. The city wants to attract developers to build downtown to reduce sprawl.

Spectrum will save an estimated $4 million in tax breaks and fee-reduction incentives alone.

The P Word

North State Street is at the start of a building boom, and neighboring businesses fear impacts from Stateside will worsen as other large housing projects get built. Businesses are still reeling from spillover impacts from “Gather Bellingham”—the 423-bed student housing project on North Forest Street completed in 2017.

Spectrum told neighbors that Stateside would be different. It said the project would be in an ideal location to get around without a car—it’s a short walk to the downtown core and WWU, and there’s a bus stop right out front. Lobby screens would announce the next bus arrival, and twice the indoor bike parking required by code would encourage students to bike.

But Spectrum’s own parking study suggests that that’s probably not going to happen.

The adjacent bus stop travels to Fairhaven. The closest bus route to WWU is a 10-minute uphill walk away (walking to campus directly takes about 15 minutes). Students said they would be more likely to walk than ride a bike to campus because of the steep grade. Walking routes to campus are poorly lit and crosswalks are missing at many intersections.

Spectrum will expect students who don’t rent a spot in their parking garage to promise they won’t bring a car to Bellingham. That’s just one of more than a dozen mitigations the city will require to offset parking problems. Spectrum will have to provide an on-site car-share vehicle, to work with WWU to advertise available on-campus parking, and to rent 60 additional parking spaces from one of the “underutilized” parking lots within a half mile. Spectrum’s parking study showed more than 100 off-street spaces available within a 10-minute walk.

But those spaces don’t exist. Calls to every public and private lot on the map showed the actual number of available parking spaces within a half mile: six. Western’s lots are maxed out with long wait lists according to Parking Services. City Transportation Planner Chris Comeau said students would be unlikely to use a car-share vehicle to get to campus. The Parkade—a 12-minute walk away—is the only city lot in all of downtown that isn’t full. The City Council recently earmarked its remaining 57 spots for the proposed JCPenney redevelopment on Cornwall Avenue.

The Guinea Pig

The city believes that Stateside will succeed at discouraging residents from driving, and that it won’t burden the surrounding neighborhood.   

I’m a member of the North State Street Business Coalition (NSBC)—a group of more than 20 concerned nearby businesses. Stateside will directly affect me; I work across the street. We sure hope the city is right.

The NSBC is thankful that the city will require Spectrum to pay for part of the cost of a new stop light at the corner of State and Laurel streets. The city will also require the developer to pay for 15 new electronic multi-space parking pay stations to manage increased demand for on-street parking, and to include “an on-site bike shop.”

The city won’t, however, require the company to provide a free shuttle to WWU, or a fleet of electric bicycles—both of which were identified as the mitigations most likely to succeed by a WWU Office of Sustainability study. And the city won’t answer neighborhood calls to make the best of existing on-street parking by installing diagonal spaces on nearby side streets.

The city can’t require Spectrum to provide more ground-floor commercial space to activate the street and recover lost jobs. There is no code that would allow the city to require Spectrum to provide adequate space for the HUB. In a meeting with the NSBC in October, Grant said, “We’re not going to make that [590 sf] space bigger because that triggers a bigger parking requirement.”

The NSBC spent the last four months trying to negotiate these “intangibles” with Spectrum directly, hoping to form a community benefits agreement similar to those that have protected communities in larger cities like Nashville, Oakland, and Milwaukee. We wanted our neighborhood to be the site of the most progressive urban infill development in Bellingham’s history. We wanted the neighborhood to grow into a vibrant retail corridor that depends less on cars. We wanted the HUB back.

Before walking away from negotiations with the NSBC earlier this month, Grant rejected the group’s suggestion to donate an adequate space to the Hub on a 10-year-lease, to enshrine the beloved neighborhood asset as a permanent part of our community.

“A large percent of our residents are not people who will want to hang around in a bike shop like Kyle’s,” Grant said.

Whether The HUB will have a home within Stateside remains unclear. For now, the community bike center has relocated to Ohio Street, where it is paying twice the rent for half its previous space.

After months of negotiation, Spectrum says it will make good on its promise to re-incorporate murals on the South Bay Trail that had served as a neighborhood landmark, and to hire the Seattle artist, Yale Wolf, to complete additional murals for Stateside. But the city can’t require Spectrum to make good on promises to other Alley District artists for work associated with Stateside.

City Planner Rick Sepler told the NSBC in a meeting last fall, “the city can’t overburden the project.”

We sincerely hope this project isn’t going to overburden the community.

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