The Bellingham buildup

BELLINGHAM – When developers started proposing four- and five-story apartment and condominium buildings in downtown Bellingham four years ago, it was a big deal for an area that had struggled since Bellis Fair mall opened in 1988.

Now, developers are talking about going up 10, 18, even 20 stories. Ground has not been broken on any of them, but the plans already have spurred some angry public reaction and a review of city height restrictions.

Rick Westerop is erecting a five-story building on the west side of Railroad Avenue, south of Maple Street, and had planned to build that high on the other side of Railroad Avenue. Now he’s proposed up to two 18-story towers there. “What my original plan was would be a great misuse of this property,” Westerop said. “It’s time to step it up.”

Emily Weaver, who plans to move into Westerop’s building west of Railroad Avenue, recently attended a meeting on the new tower plans.

“I really look forward to looking at the tower,” she said. “I think it’s just too bad that both (towers) couldn’t be built at once.”

South Hill resident Dave Courtis understands why developers are proposing taller buildings, but he thinks towers downtown and along the waterfront would change the area’s character for the worse.

Courtis is particularly worried that future towers on the waterfront would block his view.

“I think for those of us that are fortunate enough to have views it makes Bellingham a very attractive place to be,” he said.

Several areas of Bellingham, including downtown, have no limits on how tall buildings can be.

“We have these areas with unlimited height because no one ever imagined that anyone would ever build over just a few stories,” Mayor Mark Asmundson said.

Height limits are something for the democratic process to decide, said Will Honea, one of the partners in Bay View Tower LLC, which has proposed a 20-story building at 1217 N. State St.

“An 80-story building would probably be inappropriate just given the size of the municipality, but nobody’s proposing that either,” he said. “I don’t think ours is out of character.”

Most of the taller building plans are downtown, but there are others, including 14- and 11-story buildings two Idaho developers have proposed on Northwest Avenue, just south of Bakerview Road.

In Fairhaven, where the size of buildings has been steadily rising, developers Westerop and Ted Mischaikov plan on nine stories for their Fairhaven Harbor project south of Harris Avenue between Eighth and Ninth streets.

Also, the 1,800-home Larrabee Springs plan includes a commercial center with two towers of 10 to 20 stories at Smith Road and Guide Meridian.

Larry Willman, a consultant working on the Northwest Avenue plan, said that location would avoid the upheaval that comes in more established areas.

“We have less impacts on views than practically anywhere else that I can think of where tall buildings might go,” he said.

City officials now are reviewing which areas have no height limits and looking into whether they should.

Setting a limit could bring boring blocks of buildings that have the same scale and shape, with less open space between them, Asmundson said.

Some other cities set limits but allow buildings to be taller if they provide amenities such as parks, affordable housing and community centers. City officials are considering this in Old Town, and Asmundson said they would also do so in the central waterfront area and downtown in the next 12 to 18 months.

Consultants start work next month on alternatives for the former Georgia-Pacific West Inc. Bellingham mill that include building heights, said Sylvia Goodwin, director of planning and development for the Port of Bellingham. They plan to present the alternatives to the public in late January.

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