by Barbara Clarke
Seven years ago, my daughter and I moved to Bellingham and settled on the outskirts of Fairhaven. Some of the persuasive features were an affordable apartment, the beautifully maintained trails, Fairhaven Park nearby, the exciting daylighting of Padden Creek, and the ability to walk into town. I was delighted with our choice. Almost anything we needed I could find in the village, leaving our car free for my daughter during the week, and grocery shopping on the weekend.
Now, as I walk around Fairhaven, a half-dozen years after our arrival, what I see is troubling. I wonder if I’m the only one noticing the result of aggressive infill, the demise of easements, and congestion for such a small area. I wonder who is watching the proverbial store?
I became curious about what Fairhaven had done in the way of preserving the historic nature of the village and the immediate area around it. And, I was pleased to see that, given the increasing population and limited space, the Fairhaven Neighborhood and Urban Village Plan (FNUVP) had created a thoughtful document dated August 13, 2012.
Goals of the Plan
The goals of the plan were clearly stated:
1. Preserve and enhance Fairhaven’s distinctive and historic character,
2. Fulfill Fairhaven’s role as a model vibrant, successful urban village,
3. Protect, restore and preserve the existing natural areas in Fairhaven,
4. Maintain a healthy balance between residential, industrial, commercial and retail sectors,
5. Enhance infrastructure to encourage and support the pedestrian and bicycle-friendly atmosphere,
6. Address traffic, pedestrian safety and parking challenges, and
7. Improve access to the waterfront.
At the time of our arrival, I was working as a grant writer, five years into a major restoration and preservation venture on the Olympic Peninsula. The rural, nonprofit historical museum was the project’s sponsor. They bought a crumbling Victorian mansion, a historic barn, plus 10 acres with the goal to preserve the past but make the restored mansion and an outdoor theater, built entirely by volunteers, rentable for events. I acquired a new set of eyes and a sharper awareness. The key questions I learned to ask were: What can be preserved? What are the costs? What role can citizens play? What long-term value is returned to the community? And, especially, where does a local government come in?
The FNUVP represents the first major review and reconciliation of neighborhood priorities in Fairhaven since the 1980 neighborhood plan. Further into the plan, I found the phrase, “compatibility of design,” in among other important features, such as economic vitality, and connections within Fairhaven and with surrounding areas. They were identified as of paramount importance. Their challenge was acknowledged: “Address the diverse expectations of the property owners, merchants, and those that call Fairhaven home.”
Presciently, the 2012 plan for Fairhaven expressed what the future might hold and even stated them in the document as issues to address:
• Current and future parking limitations
• Limited direct access to the waterfront
• Lack of building height limits in certain areas
• Increasing traffic and urban village “sprawl” into adjacent residential areas
• Unclear and confusing development rules and design guidance for new development
• Lack of historic preservation rules
With the plan in hand, I had a way to frame my concerns already identified as challenges. Let’s start with Infill, specifically, the new apartments and condos rising out of once-vacant lots or the result of demolished buildings. The grand-prize winner is the new luxury condos that run an entire block. They dwarf every neighboring structure, and, for all that, they are scheduled to house only a small number of well-off owners. Same for some of the other new and future buildings. Housing for the well-off hardly counts as housing for the rest of us, especially given the cost of living today. The less fortunate, including students, can sit on a tiny balcony big enough for a chair overlooking the beauty of I-5, plus all the pollution and noise that goes with it. But, hey, you can walk to Starbucks!
Or, they can choose to live well outside the immediate area, but the adjoining neighborhoods are facing the same infill issues or now are as populated, expensive, and limited as Fairhaven. In fact, The Bellingham Herald reported on April 7 that RentHub, a rental housing data company, zip code 98225 (essentially Fairhaven) had a 7.9 percent increase in the median rental price since March of 2021. To the east of Fairhaven, in zip code 98229, things are looking even more expensive. There, the median rental price moved up to $2,080.
A close cousin of infill are undeveloped lots and buildings deemed not worth saving. I’ve noticed more than a few charming older houses, with an empty lot next door, shaded by the comparative Goliath rising up above them. I don’t know how these unsuspecting owners felt about having morning sun or late-afternoon light streaming through their windows, but now that is most likely gone. And the issue of a modicum of privacy? You in your backyard have become a person of interest to the neighbors sitting on their balconies above you.
This dwarfing of what’s left of older residences can also happen if, in these boom times for sellers, the new owners of the house next door decide to add on to the house and … rinse, repeat.
One more word about these new apartment buildings. I have to wonder if the commercial architect on the job took a good look around. If so, what made them think that introducing exterior colors that have little compatibility with the surrounding buildings honors the plan or the community character. Often, the front of the building is an attempt to fit in with the neighborhood — brick of some kind. But, for everyone with a view of the back of the building, they are looking at beige sheets of some cheaper material.
Lack of Trees and Birds
Along with infill comes the destruction of existing trees. I signed the sad save the trees signs hung from the two remaining on the corner before the Fairhaven Towers went in to no avail.
What developers do is put in street trees as an afterthought and damn few of them at that. These champions of growing up in concrete amaze me, and, while it’s rumored trees are good for sucking up our carbon, they must be choking on what passes for fresh air these days. Lately, I’ve had a new appreciation for the old trees that are left. The massive tree on the lot next to the Firehouse Café is in my mind an homage to what is still gracing the neighborhood. And, did I mention the absence of birds? Sorry — crows don’t count, although they are a noble lot despite their penchant for takeout wrappers.
If you want to see what incompatibility looks like, I have two candidates — both are on the outskirts of town but deserve special mention. The first one is the private student housing called Elevate on South Forest and Garden. I understand from those with petitions at the local Co-op how the developer managed to squeak by the regulations of how many stories could be built. By creating what reminds me of a cattle chute on Garden, he did a workaround. I didn’t know what the fuss was all about, but then as the monster rose, I got it. The new mural is lovely, just don’t look up.
My personal favorite, however, is the apartment building (or maybe condos) billed as “20 Bellwether, a four-story gem that boasts a modern feel, while still offering a warm and inviting environment.” Screw the brick or what the rest of the neighborhood looks like — let’s use a muddy yellow tile here and there, add a dash of orange, and put bars across many of the windows so someone doesn’t fall out if they want to open one.
This brings me to easements — a relic from the past, evidently. Friends of mine were thrilled to rent one of the loft apartments on 13th Street. They were on the end unit with a view of trees and a bit of the bay out their kitchen window. Soon, however, their view gave way to a brick wall when the property next door was sold, the structure knocked down, and yet another apartment building was constructed next door. On the ground floor, the windows are literally right on the sidewalk in the “new” easement.
You must have to close your drapes or get dressed up in order to sit in your living room with the lights on. One apartment I pass on the way to the library has their window done up for pedestrians — a large funny poster facing the street.
An acquaintance, who moved here for many of the same reasons we did, suggested on one of our walks that the open land at the bottom of Harris would be a great site for apartments and condos. Really? Well, maybe so, but only if the first-floor residences come with life jackets and paddles when the Big One shivers our timbers and the tsunami arrives.
What comes with more housing and industry? Congestion caused by cars — lots of them. Given the rarity of a one-car family, I imagine any housing unit with more than one or two persons is likely a two-car unit. Where are these cars going to go? If you think I’m buying “Oh, they’ll use a bike as a second car or walk everywhere” — forget it. And logistically, how many cars can line up at the lights to get out of Dodge to say downtown Bellingham? Are folks in the $500,000-and-up condos going to take public transit? Maybe for the first time in their lives. I’ve seen cars having to wait for a second green to make a left off of 12th on to Harris. And, to press my point even further, have you tried to find a parking space in downtown Fairhaven over the weekend? If you don’t have a secret place to park as a resident, you will join the often-impatient caravan of visitors and the rest of us searching for someone leaving. And, since we’re all not driving Teslas, there’s exhaust and risky crosswalks — yet another concern, personal and public. It can’t be good for the businesses to have customers leave because of the parking situation, and it’s certainly not pleasant for visitors.
And, while I’m on the subject of streets, not from the day I arrived have I understood the historic charm of the two blocks of old bricks and tracks down Harris from 13th to 11th streets.
Here’s one more congestion-related problem I see. Visitors to Fairhaven are directed on I-5 to use Old Fairhaven Parkway as their entry. I’m noticing for the first time writing this the ironic Old and Parkway, but I digress. To add to the bottleneck, those coming off of Chuckanut Drive converge with the former. The result is — heads-up, pedestrians and middle school kids. Despite traffic lights on all four corners of Chuckanut/12th and Old Fairhaven Parkway, it’s close to a hazing experience trying to make it when the right-turn-on-red cars aren’t looking your way. Another sweet spot is the intersection of Old Fairhaven Parkway and 14th Street. Those of us who crossed there called it “the kill zone” before the pedestrian lights were installed. I’m not even going to talk about the Wildlife Crossing signs that are helpful except that you have to slow down and pay attention for them to have the intended effect.
Build It and They’ll Come
Somewhat off topic but something I think about is our precious and only water source, Lake Whatcom. I’m not sure we’re prepared for what may come: a few years of severe drought, too many new water and sewer hookups, or pollution of the lake by various means. This is the mentality that California has used — if we build it, they will come. Their worst water and energy-source wars have yet to occur but are clearly visible on the horizon.
What I want to know is this — who is watching the plan? The Bellingham Planning Department? The Fairhaven Association? Historical Society members? Developers and property owners? Existing residents about to be put into the permanent shade of a high rise? The rest of us still wanting to call this area home but who may be priced out?
In fairness to the 2012 Fairhaven Neighborhood and Urban Village Plan, it’s been 10 years, and I can only hope that another community listening, planning, and revised vision with new, urgent restrictions will be forthcoming — and soon.
I am reminded of a few pertinent lines from an old Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi” — “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got, ‘til it’s gone . . . .”
Barbara Clarke has worked as a freelance grant writer for over 10 years, focusing on nonprofit organizations. In April 2021, Barbara published her second book “The Red Kitchen: A Memoir” and is at work on a memoir including her experience as a health insurance executive.