Policymakers weren’t pleased by a proposal to build a dense new neighborhood of 492 homes in the Padden Creek watershed. Bellingham City Council asked the project developers, Padden Trails LLC, to sharpen their pencils and draft a new proposal. The project sponsors did, proposing 15 percent fewer homes and increasing the number of them priced for low- and moderate-income families.
But the proposal still requires an upzone, which council members are loathe to yield.
In a March 26 worksession, council members detailed their misgivings about the original plan for a dense housing project in Samish neighborhood on 113 rugged acres, bounded on the west by Lake Padden and on the east by Interstate-5. Their concerns include traffic and fire access, as well as unease about building dense housing in neighborhoods at the edges of the city, where municipal services are not readily available.
Some members on council reserved special annoyance that they had originally insisted the development plan work within existing zoning; however, the plan that reached the Bellingham Planning Commission earlier this year called for doubling the number of homes—from 246 to 492—through the addition of multi-family and condominium units with shared open space. A 2006 preliminary plat approved by the city’s hearing examiner allows for just 224 houses on the property.
Neighbors strongly oppose the rezone, declaring that the proposal abuses the intent of city’s Infill Toolkit, which provides a variety of authorized techniques for increasing neighborhood densities. The intent, they say, is to build densities in the city’s core, not on the city’s edges. They spoke passionately and at length about the project in open comments in March.
The planning commission approved the proposal, believing it met the city’s larger goals for growth; but only city policymakers can authorize the change in land use.
“Almost all of our concerns about this proposal revolve around that increase in the number of homes,” Council member Michael Lilliquist said. Lilliquist drafted a memo he shared with other council members at the evening work session.
“Our design team took your directive to heart,” George Huston responded in a letter to the council. Huston is managing partner of adden Trails LLC.
“We analyzed several realistic scenarios to achieve the planning commission findings as well as the council’s recent direction. The resulting alternative was surprising to us, as it achieves the public’s goal to minimize traffic impacts with safe access, while also addressing some council members comment to obtain additional public benefit.”
In their revised proposal, Huston’s group seek a density of 12,000 square feet per home, or a total of 410 homes. That would reduce by 18 percent the number of estimated evening rush hour vehicle trips going through the intersection of Connelly Avenue and 34th Street, Huston wrote. They additionally pledged to have 15 percent of them, or 62 homes, priced for low- and moderate-income households, Huston wrote.
“Our goal has been to serve the broadest spectrum of the housing market with a diversity of housing forms,” he wrote. “Our design team concluded mixing conventional single family and duplex units with more nuanced forms permitted by the infill toolkit is the best path.” The project team hired architect Ross Chapin to lead the design. Chapin delivered a presentation in Bellingham last year on pocket neighborhoods, a concept that builds tightly clustered homes around a centralized community space. Padden Trails additionally answered neighbors’ traffic concerns by agreeing to new street alignments and improvements at Connelly Avenue and 34th Street.
The project design would also open to the west and south to provide increased trail access to Lake Padden, upstream from the project site.
Huston and his group have made good faith efforts to meet the concerns of neighbors and city planners, said Bill Geyer, a consultant for the Padden Trails project, but the economics—including public amenities and asset improvements—as well as city growth goals favor a higher number of homes than zoning currently allows.
“Decisions like this are difficult for two reasons,” Lilliquist noted. “First, not all facts favor one side or the other; both sides have some good points. Our decision should embody balancing of competing consequences. If we choose to deny the rezone, it is not because the project is without some merit.
“The second reason that decisions like this are difficult,” he continued, “is because both sides have some bad points as well. Some individuals on both sides have misrepresented, misunderstood, or exaggerated certain claims.” Lilliquist observed that most of benefits and costs of the proposal will not be known until final project-level commitments are made, after the zoning change. Without those commitments, he said, the project loses most of the alleged public benefits that could justify approval. A majority of council members expressed agreement with his views.
Council member Jack Weiss similarly submitted a list of questions about the project’s impacts on schools, traffic, fore support, and stormwater flows into nearby creeks. These are enduring concerns, he noted, and may take additional worksessions to resolve.
Whatcom County Council member Ken Mann, a resident of Bellingham, recently expressed enthusiasm for the Padden Trails concept. The project achieves a broad range of county growth goals, he wrote.
“The Padden Trails project is not in my jurisdiction or district,” Mann admitted. “I have no direct stake in the outcome; however, I feel it is my duty to speak up because of the impacts and connections to county policy.”
Challenging neighbors not to be NIMBYs, Mann said, “If we don’t start doing what is right in Bellingham, that fact will be used to justify doing (even more) wrong things in the county.” The project, city planners agreed delivers city goals for quality infill, creative design, houses on small lots, trails, community greenspaces, and affordable housing inventory. The project would give credibility to the city’s claims that it will support infill and protect the county from sprawl, Mann said.
“I support quality infill at this site and others,” he said. “Let’s have small houses on small lots. Let’s make it bike-able. Let’s have community greenspaces. Let’s allow,” he encourged, “a property owner to make a reasonable profit for taking a huge risk and investing in our community. Let’s see if the market even supports this kind of housing.”
City Council will take up the issue again next week.
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