A project to build a new Blaine library and add affordable and market-rate housing on the top levels is being brainstormed by Kulshan Community Land Trust (KCLT), the city of Blaine and Whatcom County Library System (WCLS).
Blaine City Council unanimously approved 6-0, with councilmember Garth Baldwin absent, to authorize a feasibility study to look at options for a mixed-use library project during the May 22 council meeting. The project property is one acre of city-owned land that includes the library, a parking lot and the skate park. The city is already planning to rebuild the skate park in 2027 and is considering moving it to a new location, according to city documents.
KCLT will pay for the feasibility study using a state grant it secured, making it no cost to the project’s partners, the city and WCLS. The feasibility study could be finished by the end of the year.
City council initiated the feasibility study by approving a transfer option agreement that would allow KCLT to potentially acquire the city property, according to city documents. The purchase would be subject to future terms, such as the project layout and price of land. The city will determine the terms and can void the transfer option agreement if KCLT does not meet those terms after three years, with the possibility for council to approve two year-long extensions.
Paul Schissler has been consulting KCLT through his Bellingham-based company Madrona Community Development to bring affordable housing to downtown and east Blaine. Schissler said after the council meeting that while current zoning allows for the building to go up to five stories, the building is more likely to be three to four stories because a larger building requires more subsidies for affordable housing. The homes would likely include market-rate homes to help pay for the affordable homes, Schissler said.
The homes would be for first-time home buyers who have $50,000-130,000 household incomes, KCLT executive director Dean Fearing said.
“Working people cannot afford market-price for a home,” Schissler said. “If we find enough subsidy, we might be able to help people earning $40,000 per year.”
The city decided against soliciting requests from private developers for the project because KCLT had the grant to pay for the feasibility study and the organization has a good history of securing acquisition and construction funding, according to city documents.
KCLT is a Bellingham-based nonprofit that helps people purchase homes through down payment assistance and owning the land under the home, which preserves the home’s affordability for future buyers. The land trust sets a small annual equity increase so that homeowners can earn a profit from their home, but KCLT will keep the home below market value when it’s sold. KCLT has about 140 homes in its trust and more projects being planned.
The feasibility study will also consider whether commercial spaces, in addition to the library, could be included in the project. Schissler said examples of what could be considered include a child care facility, art gallery, community meeting area, office space and parking lot.
“There is a lot of value because of the dual nature of what this accomplishes,” councilmember Kerena Higgins said. “And I don’t see another opportunity for the library coming down the pike anytime soon but this could accomplish that objective.”
Councilmember Richard May said he’s seen a similar model of affordable housing above public libraries in Vancouver, B.C.
“It works out splendidly and is an excellent thing to have right now in the court sitting like this,” May said.
The Blaine Library is a 5,400-square-foot building that was converted in 1988 from a public works garage. Friends of Blaine Library, which has been in charge of raising funds for library construction, revealed a new library design in February 2020, but progress was sidelined during the pandemic and as WCLS focused on bringing a library to Birch Bay.
WCLS board of directors supported the proposal during their May 16 meeting. WCLS asked that consideration be given to double the library’s size to 10,000 square feet or larger and include sufficient on-site public parking, a separate entrance for library delivery vehicles, potentially two electric vehicle charging stations and sound-proofing between the residences and library. The WCLS board also asked it be included in the library design and review process.
Blaine library branch manager Jonathan Jakobitz said after the meeting that he was in favor of WCLS’ request to double the library’s size to meet Blaine’s needs as it grows.
“I love the idea of this partnership. Affordable housing is desperately needed in our community and I love the idea of the library being used in a multi-use facility,” Jakobitz said. “I’m hopeful about this possibility.”
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