Planning commission greenlights downtown project

685 Peace Portal Drive. Photo courtesy the city of Blaine.

A few apartments in addition to a restaurant, coffee and barber shops slated for construction

By Stefanie Donahue

Yet another developer is vying to bring new business and residents to Blaine.

The latest proposal comes from Peter Gigante, who approached the city in 2017 with a plan to convert the old office building at the corner of H Street and Peace Portal Drive into a mixed-use space comprised of three apartments, a specialty restaurant, a coffee shop and a barber shop.

The project requires a shoreline substantial development permit, due to its proximity to the marina, and a land use variance, to reduce the amount of required parking stalls from three spaces to zero. In a 7–0 vote, Blaine Planning Commission approved the permit and variance, with modifications.

The seven-member commission is the final authority for shoreline developments permits and variance applications.

According to a staff report from the city, the building, located at 685 Peace Portal Drive next to H Street Plaza, was last used as office space, but has remained vacant for several years. It was built in the 1920s and a 400-square-foot addition was attached to the basement level in 1973.

“The building is currently in rough shape and needs significant repairs,” according to the report. “Much of the interior of the building has been stripped down and the foundation is starting to settle.”

Shortly after purchasing the building in 2016, Gigante told city staff he wanted to restore it, while maintaining its historic structure. At the time, Gigante said he wanted to refurbish the existing commercial space and construct a handful of apartments.

In 2017, Blaine Planning Commission voted to allow outdoor dining on the H Street plaza; since then, Gigante has been working with Drayton Harbor Oyster Company, which is planning to move into the building from its 677 Peace Portal Drive location once the renovation is complete, said community planner Alex Wenger.

Gigante has already lined up businesses to manage the coffee shop and barber shop.

“The renovated building will have sweeping views of the Blaine marina, Drayton Harbor, the islands beyond and White Rock to the north,” read the report. “The outdoor dining and connectivity to the H Street Plaza will contribute to the goal of creating a vibrant pedestrian friendly central business district.”

Despite city staff lauding the project as a “significant step forward for the revitalization of downtown Blaine,” it still presented some challenges.

Vehicle access is a big hurdle for the 1,700-square-foot building, which is one of the smallest in the Central Business District. New developments in the district require one parking stall per one-bedroom unit and since Gigante intends to build three one-bedroom units on a new level, he was required to construct three parking stalls.

Instead, he applied for a land use variance to lift that requirement since he’d either have to install vehicle access on Peace Portal Drive (which the city staff report called “impractical”) or construct a gravel lane on property owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway to the west.

The latter option would cost approximately $250,000.

“The bottom line is the amount of cost involved to construct a lane represents 25-to-30 percent of what we think our project budget is,” said Roger Axelson, representing ARA Architects. “It’s simply too much to bear.”

Wenger added, “This issue kind of exists for all the properties in the water view district, but this particular property does seem to be almost most significantly challenged by issues of access … They’re trying to capitalize on this existing building and if you were to design a building from scratch, brand new, you’d have more opportunity to develop vehicle access.”

Ultimately, the commission approved the permit and variance on the condition that the property is improved to include three onsite parking stalls once an access lane to the west of the property is completed under the purview of the public works department.

Additionally, the commission required that the property owner agree to participate in a Local Improvement District, or LID, to improve the access lane, if the city chooses to form one to cover the cost of improving the access lane.

Wenger said not to expect project completion anytime soon; Gigante still has to submit building permits. “I think it’s going to be a long construction project,” Wenger said.

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