O’Neillreflects on 15 years of service

Published on Thu, Feb 16, 2006 by ara Nelson

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O’Neill reflects on 15 years of service

By Tara Nelson

As a self-employed designer and builder, Brad O’Neill, of the O’Neill Group design firm, has seen his share of quaint small towns turned into traffic-congested wastelands of urban sprawl. So when O’Neill moved to Semiahmoo in the late ‘80s in a “failed attempt to retire,” he made a vow to himself never to let that happen to Blaine.

O’Neill, the former vice president of the development company, Wick Homes in Seattle, said he saw in Blaine what he thought was Kirkland 40 years ago – a small town with lots of character just on the verge of becoming something bigger.

“Kirkland was a charming little city but it lost control of its land use laws and it never developed to its full potential,” he said. “I saw so many mistakes happening and I was a part of that so I vowed that when I came to Blaine, I would do everything possible to make sure the mistakes that occurred in Kirkland did not happen in Blaine.”

O’Neill and his wife Diane, who work together in their beautiful 796-square foot office space attached to their home – of which, O’Neill designed, of course – said as they watched Seattle convert from a big country city to a full-blown urban environment, the city became congested with traffic and began to develop other problems often associated with large cities, which resulted in an anti-growth sentiment.

This kind of resentment quickly formed into anti-growth legislation that created the perfect environment for lawsuits, he said. O’Neill, who lost much of the enthusiasm for his job after he became involved in several legal challenges, said he sees the same process happening in Bellingham and Birch Bay.

“We haven’t seen it yet, but it’s coming,” he said. “We’re going to see anti-growth legislation occur.

“What that does is it takes away property rights and that creates legal challenges,” he said.

At first, O’Neill, who was hired to design the footprint, or the site plan for the Semiahmoo Cottages, promised himself he wouldn’t continue to design homes but soon fell back on his word when he fell in love with the area’s beauty and the people in the community.

“I promised myself I wouldn’t build any more houses,” he said. “But then I met this couple from California and they were so sweet, I decided I would break my rules and build a house for them. It went from there and everyone wanted me to build their projects. So my wife and I eventually said if we met extraordinary people, we might want to help them with their projects. But then we kept on meeting extraordinary people. So now, I’ve made a vow that I will retire in two years.”

O’Neill grew up in Butte, Mont., what he calls an old Irish mining town where everyone was so “dirt poor” that the town residents didn’t know they were poor.

“I didn’t know how poor I was until I went out into the real world,” he said. “When I went to school I saw how all these kids had all this money to go to school and my folks didn’t have any money. So I was one of those guys who had to work and go to school and it became very difficult.”

After high school, O’Neill studied architecture at Montana State University until he was drafted into the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s. When he returned, from overseas, he decided to continue his education as an apprentice rather than finishing his college degree.
“I learned through the trades,” he said. “But I wouldn’t advise that because the world’s different now. The doors that are open for you with a degree are huge.”

Throughout his career, O’Neill’s architectural skill and attention to detail has earned his company numerous awards such as six nationally judged Mame gold medal awards for homes designed and built in the Seattle area; five silver medal finalist awards and numerous regional and national acknowledgments.

In addition, the O’Neill group was one of only two named in the State of Washington among the “Top 50 Luxury Leaders” in the United States by Professional Builder magazine in June 1996, and again in May of 1998.

O’Neill’s service to the city of Blaine has also been extensive.
Shortly after he and his wife moved to Blaine, O’Neill was appointed to Blaine’s planning commission because of his architectural experience and understanding of development economics.

He also served three years on the citizens wastewater advisory committee (CWAC), created the design of the planned Blaine boardwalk, helped write the city’s first comprehensive plan in the late 1980s and the Port of Bellingham’s Blaine Harbor comprehensive improvement plan a few years ago, which gave the city of Blaine the go-ahead to begin improvements to Marine Drive.

Blaine community development director Terry Galvin described O’Neill as an “unsung hero.” Unsung, primarily because he has preferred to work tirelessly under the radar to help the community realize its potential, he said.

“There is no greater advocate for the city of Blaine,” Galvin said. “His (greatest) contribution has been his vision of quality and distinction for this city.”

In addition, O’Neill created the city’s cleaning and grading ordinance that prevents developers from clear-cutting land with no regard for certain tree canopies and other aesthetic vegetation; the city’s landscape ordinance that requires a certain amount of vegetative buffers in large parking lots to prevent what he calls an “asphalt jungle”; and designed Blaine’s turn-of the-century theme for street design and signage.

His most significant project, however, is likely the proposed Blaine boardwalk.

His initial difficulties as a planning commissioner stemmed from his background as a developer, and trying to think like a city instead of a developer that had been frustrated with some of those rules for years, but O’Neill said he had a vision for Blaine that he wanted to maintain. Mainly, he wanted to keep Blaine from becoming what his former town of Kirkland has become.

“My original goal was to make sure that the city, as it evolved through development, that the pedestrians, or the down town citizens, did not lose touch with what they had always remembered and loved about their city initially. That would be the beautiful views, the accessibility to waterfronts – all the things that people take for granted when there’s open spaces and no buildings.”

His most recent pro-bono projects include the redesign and beautification of Blaine’s city hall and the design and construction of a replication of the old Semiahmoo lighthouse.