Newdowntown regulations proposed

Published on Thu, Feb 17, 2005 by eg Olson

Read More News

New downtown regulations proposed

By Meg Olson

Blaine city council and planning commission are working together to refine proposals that would change the way developers change the city’s downtown by substituting a vision for a prescription.

“The intention is to try and create some flexibility and allow common sense to prevail,” Blaine community development director Terry Galvin told council members at a February 14 work session.

Galvin is proposing changes to the city’s comprehensive plan and zoning map for the central business district as the first part of a comprehensive plan review that will span the year.

A vision statement developed in a three-day planning session in November that included staff members, developers, property owners and others interested in how downtown grows described the Blaine of the future as “not your daddy’s border town.” The regulatory amendments being proposed are the tools Galvin said the city needs to grow into “a funky combination of urban sophistication and historic coastal fishing village,” that the vision statement predicts will “give Blaine a vibrancy unlike any other seacoast cities on the west coast of the United States.”

For starters Galvin wants to redraw the zoning map, dividing the existing central business district into a “market” and a “transition” zone, and wants to add the “wharf” area along Marine Drive to the zone.

A hub and a buffer
The market zone would cover the area from the freeway to Peace Portal Drive north of Martin Street, with a section extending further south along Peace Portal Drive. “That’s the marketplace, where we want a concentration of activity: pedestrian friendly, residences only on upper floors with commercial at ground level.” The auto-oriented overlay on Peace Portal Drive near the freeway would be eliminated to encourage auto oriented uses to migrate into the highway-commercial zone on D Street. Rather than listing specific uses prohibited in the zone the new rules would allow anything as long as it didn’t disrupt or diminish the pedestrian and retail shopping character envisioned for the area. “These are really performance standards, not prescriptive language,” he said. Especially large buildings and hotels would be allowed only as conditional uses.

While he recommends flexibility when it comes to uses, Galvin is asking for rigid adherence to a zero-setback rule that would insure all buildings start at the sidewalk. “Today in the central business district the orientation of a business to the street is not articulated in any way. There’s no interaction with the pedestrian environment,” he said. “Force that building up to the front and force the pedestrian interaction.” Exceptions could be made for patio seating areas for a restaurant.

The new regulations put special restrictions on development on the west side of Peace Portal Drive, requiring the incorporation of view corridors into the project plan and that each development cede an easement for the boardwalk or a waterfront trail.

The transition zone south of the market zone would be a one-block buffer between that and neighboring residential zones. “The central business zone today just butts up against the residential,” Galvin said. “The intent here is to buffer established single family neighborhoods from the noise light and activity associated with downtown. It would be a people oriented small-scale mix of residential and commercial.” He stressed the new zone was not grabbing residentially zoned areas and making them commercial, but rather requiring lower impact uses in traditionally commercial areas.

The Wharf
Galvin is also proposing that the area along Marine Drive be added to the central business district as a wharf subarea. “This is largely psychological,” he said, “One of the things we’re trying to do is create a link between the wharf area and downtown.” Development regulations for the zone would not change from what they are now under a marine commercial zoning designation, at least not right now. “It will preserve the kind of traditional industrial marine activity,” Galvin said, until city planners and the Port of Bellingham can meet to discuss changes to land use in the area. “Right now we have entirely different regulations down there and I think they’re too restrictive,” Galvin said. “I’m an advocate of opening it up and letting the free market system find its level.”

Council members wanted to see cautious changes to land use in the wharf area. “I wouldn’t like to see an effect where business moves down there to force out industrial,” said city council member Bob Brunkow. Other council members wanted to see some diversification into non-marine uses of land in the wharf area. “I’d hate to write something so restrictive it dampens something really exploding down there,” said Ken Ely. City manager Gary Tomsic agreed more flexibility in the development regulations for the area was needed but suggested it wait. “I don’t think we should encourage other kinds of businesses there that would compete with our downtown until it establishes and becomes successful,” he said. “Then let it spread.”
Parking throughout the central business district is due for a review, Galvin said, and the city plans to draw up a new parking plan for the whole area, looking at on and off-street parking, what developers need to include in their projects and the potential for a central city parking facility.

Flexible design
Design standards for the downtown area were established in 1999 through the Blaine Design Guidelines and Sign Ordinance following a theme that reflects the city’s boom time around 1900, at the turn of the last century. Galvin wants them loosened to allow some creative, more contemporary, solutions that would still fit with the turn-of-the-century theme. “We’re running up against the practical application of some of those guidelines,” he said. “We’re getting larger proposals and we’re seeing some conflicts. Our position is they’re overly restrictive and confining,” he said. Council members voiced a willingness to loosen the guidelines to make downtown more interesting than flat facades lined up at the curb. “We don’t want turn-of-the-century plain, we want turn-of-the-century exciting, nooks and crannies, places to explore,” said Bonnie Onyon. “We’re looking for the flexibility to allow that creativity,” Galvin said.

Galvin is proposing additional guidelines be established to avoid flat unbroken facades. “Look at big box stores, think Kmart, ugly,” he said. “If you broke that façade up into 10 or 12 different planes, different rooflines, alcoves, now you’ve got something.” He also wants developers to apply design criteria to all facades visible, not just the front.

When city council and planning commission members hold a work session February 17 at city hall they will talk about the proposed changes and whether a new design review board be created to review proposed developments, whether developers be asked instead to pay for outside design review, or if they could choose between the two. Council member Bruce Wolf was skeptical about the efficiency of committees. “In Semiahmoo with the architectural review committee it’s a constant battle,” he said. “With the wrong chemistry it could be a killer,” Galvin agreed. Tomsic suggested they look at what would make the process as seamless as possible for developers. “If you can guarantee them an efficient, precise review they’ll pay for it,” he said.