Downtownplanning sessions highly lauded

Published on Thu, Nov 25, 2004 by ack Kintner

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Downtown planning sessions highly lauded

By Jack Kintner

The city of Blaine’s planning department hosted a group planning exercise known as a charrette last week in the city council chambers, and as a result will make some major recommendations to the planning commission and to city hall about new guidelines for developing property in downtown Blaine.

The marathon sessions of four hours on the first two days and three on the final day brought together an invited group that resembled a who’s who of Blaine in the early 21st century: developers Rick Osburn, Doug Roma and Ken Imus; downtown business people Mike and Mary Lee Hill, whose roots go back into Blaine’s history, and Yolanda Calderon, who recently purchased the caboose on Peace Portal Way; pioneer descendant Jerry Wolten and, if you measure in decades, relative newcomer Sue Sturgill; city council members Bonnie Onyon and Bruce Wolf; interested community members Dr. Patrick Rooney and Jerry Gay.

Blaine community development director Terry Galvin described the meetings as both high-energy and productive. “It’s what a planner lives for,” he elaborated, “that dynamic of a creative session brainstorming about the future of a place you love.” By the end of the third day there seemed to be even more energy in the room than there had been at the beginning when everyone was fresh, Galvin said.

The exercise was led by Galvin and Bellingham architect and management consultant Dave Christensen. “The goal,” Galvin said, “was to promote a kind of dialogue among developers, planners and community members about Blaine’s direction. The difference between this exercise and so many that have gone before it,” Galvin continued, “is that developers with a proven track record see some real opportunity here. That’s given an energy to all this that hasn’t been there before, because we’re being taken seriously by these people.”

Galvin said that the planned downtown boardwalk, despite delays in getting the project going, had a lot to do with the positive and productive response. “It’s not the promise of eventually having it,” Galvin said, “but the fact that it will be in place fairly soon and will provide a place for them to realize a return on their investment.”
Mike Hill agreed, saying that one good idea to come out of the sessions was support for a proposed pedestrian overpass that will take people from the boardwalk west across the railroad tracks to an area near the Port of Bellingham boat launching ramp. “It’s a good idea to tie in downtown and the waterfront,” Hill said.

The three days were divided up into separate tasks. The first day began with clarifying the purpose of the charrette, with “Why now? What’s the rush?” Galvin said. He then held up a schematic map of downtown and began ticking off properties that had sold or were about to, and when he’d checked off over half of them it became clear that Blaine is in for some changes.

Factors cited that are spurring this change were listed as growth in the area, demographic changes, Canadian influences, surging economic vitality and both actual and potential tourism. When some referred to earlier attempts to come up with a vision for downtown that resulted in little if any change, Galvin said the difference is now that there are people to implement and build according to the guidelines a group like this generates. “It’s like sitting down and brainstorming with a contractor who’s going to re-model your kitchen,” he said, “in that you both talk possibilities, you know what you can pay for and would like, and the contractor knows what’s possible and what’s not, and together you forge a vision.”

To determine if Blaine was now ready for downtown development on such a scale, Ken Imus was invited to discuss the Fairhaven district in Bellingham and what has happened there as a result of a cooperative approach to planning. The balance of the evening was spent in asking what the current vision is for Blaine, what we have and what we may need and/or want. Gary Tomsic provided an example in a single-page handout titled A Vision of Downtown Blaine. The description included such paragraphs as “The downtown district has effectively combined a lively variety of commercial retail, dining and entertainment business with multi-family housing. The downtown area features a lively public plaza and performance pavilion which is a frequent venue for festivals and other community events.”

The next two days were spent in refining this vision and in arriving at some specific recommendations, such as unifying the district that includes downtown with the wharf area and “stairstepping” the heights of buildings so the taller ones are progressively farther east of the shoreline.

“It’s strongly suggesting that we bring residential downtown and integrate it with businesses,” said Blaine mayor John Liebert, also a member of the 1959 graduating class at Blaine high school, “and that’s great. There was wonderful energy here, and I feel we got a lot accomplished.”

The results of the intensive planning sessions have been written up as a draft that will next go to the city’s planning commission and the city council and can be reviewed at city hall. Galvin said that changes the draft document suggests “can be implemented now on a temporary basis and then can be made permanent with the comprehensive plan is reviewed next summer.”