Cityexpresses concern about shape of things to come

Published on Thu, Oct 28, 2004 by eg Olson

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City expresses concern about shape of things to come

By Meg Olson

Blaine community economic and development director Terry Galvin has been watching developers snap up property along the Blaine downtown waterfront, and is asking city council to get a clear picture of how they want Blaine’s core to look, before they no longer have a say.

“If we don’t make a conscious decision to encourage a vision, it’s going to happen on a project by project basis,” Galvin said. “They wind up looking like Everytown USA, one of those infamous strips.”
In a work session prior to their October 25 regular meeting council members agreed to a three day intensive planning session tentatively scheduled for the third week in November. Developers, property owners, merchants and residents of the central business district would meet with planning commission and city council members and staff to draft a downtown vision that staff and consultants will then develop into a set of development regulations. “We really don’t have any provisions to allow for the boardwalk, once built, being extended,” Galvin said. “We have some design standards and a page and a half of zoning regulations. The goal here is to build a clear picture of how we want our central business district to grow. I see an urban village, dynamic and pedestrian.” Galvin said the city currently had no height restrictions or open space requirements, no view protection rules, and parking regulations had been rescinded

Galvin’s report of the pace of property acquisition in Blaine’s downtown sparked a sense of urgency in city council members. “We need to have some action and now,” said newly appointed mayor John Liebert. “You have a supportive council here.” Council member Bonnie Onyon asked if there was concern some development permits could come in before the guidelines are in place. “Yes,” Galvin said. “There’s a lot on the plate I can’t anticipate.”

In the last year the central business district in Blaine has become a hot property for developers, mainly from the Bellingham area, Galvin said. “There is very clearly a concentrated effort to buy land on Peace Portal Drive,” he said, adding there was also interest in the area close to the harbor between Mitchell and Boblett streets. “We are getting a lot of acquisition and that means development is on its way. Over the next one to three years we expect to see a fairly significant development trend.”

What developers want is to build view condominiums, Galvin said, and city guidelines will determine how and if those condominium projects work to develop Blaine’s downtown. “Since the city requires commercial on the first floor in the central business district, commercial components are an integral part of the discussion,” he said. The city’s job now, he said is to develop a plan and guidelines that insure these combination commercial/retail projects work together to bring more people into downtown Blaine. “Downtown is the heart of a city,” Galvin said. “It’s what people judge it by.”

Besides a regulatory stick, city staff are looking into tax-break carrots to encourage more developers to build or restore multiple family dwelling units downtown. City manager Gary Tomsic said state law allowed cities to give developers a 10-year break on property taxes for improvements that create or restore dwelling units in specific areas. Bellingham is using this provision to create a program to draw housing into the downtown area, he said. Tomsic said several developers considering mixed-use projects had approached the city about considering such an incentive. “I appreciate the use of this methodology has had a beneficial impact,” he said. “For our retail base it actually creates a market. The customer base is right there.”

City attorney John Sitkin said once council enacted an enabling ordinance they would need to identify a target area where the program would apply and determine which component of the project the tax exemption would apply to. He added they could rescind a property’s exemption if the owner changed the use. “This is viewed as quite a high incentive,” he said. “It’s a good tool the city can use in the market to encourage inbound investment.”

Tomsic said staff would further research the incentive program and come back to council.
In development news outside downtown, council will consider a rezone of the manufacturing area along the freeway south of exit 274 at their November 8 meeting. “We’ve had a number of inquiries about establishing mid-priced lodging in Blaine, which is good,” Galvin said. Developers are looking at sites close to the freeway and many of those in the south part of Blaine are zoned for manufacturing, which does not allow lodging or restaurants.

In the upcoming comprehensive plan update Galvin said those areas would likely be rezoned to a more appropriate highway commercial designation, but in the meantime zoning was putting the brakes on development.