Differentdowntown vision presented

Published on Thu, Jan 19, 2006 by eg Olson & Tara Nelson

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Different downtown vision presented

By Meg Olson & Tara Nelson

“There’s been lots of interest in our downtown. All sorts of interest and activities and ideas, talk of buildings 20 stories high, but no one is taking serious steps right now,” said city manager, Gary Tomsic. Developers see boundless possibilities in Blaine, Tomsic told city council members at their January 9 meeting, but regulatory constraints and tricky building conditions can threaten the financial feasibility of many projects.

At an early January meeting of downtown business owners, developers and investors Tomsic said they talked about the barriers to successful development downtown, especially along Peace Portal Drive. “I see some frustration with lack of movement,” he said. “If we want to see our downtown grow we have to seriously look at if there’s anything else we can do as a city.”

What Tomsic and Blaine community development director Terry Galvin are proposing is loosening the rules so city planners and developers can work together and design projects that fits the city’s goals but still make financial sense. “It’s very difficult to develop a set of regulations that fit everybody,” Tomsic said. “We run into issues that don’t fit in a one-size-fits-all program.”

The proposal is to initiate a conditional use process for developers who want to deviate from the current central business district development standards. “If you want to go higher, wider, a little differently one way or another you go into the conditional use process,” Tomsic suggested. “Anything within reason, within the vision, within the comprehensive plan, is possible.”

Tomsic said preliminary discussions with property owners showed this would be a solution many could work with. “There are pros and cons,” Tomsic said. “It can take more time, more brain damage.”

Council member Bruce Wolf asked if it could be easier to just increase the height allowance downtown, giving developers more floors. “The next thing you know you have someone who wants one more, and another and another,” Tomsic said. “Six floors may be okay in some areas, three tops in others.”

“What we’re bringing you here is an idea. What we’re asking is for you to give us some direction so we can put some skin on this,” Tomsic said. The direction from council was to move forward with the idea, and Tomsic said they would come back at a later meeting with a resolution to officially initiate the process.

Tomsic and Galvin subsequently met with local realtor Dennis Hill and a planner from north of the border to discuss various development ideas.

Hill, who leads the political action group, Revitalize Blaine Now!, says he wants to organize a coalition of downtown business owners and lease holders to better communicate the business needs of the Blaine community and to create a liaison between downtown developers, businesses and the city planning department.

“I just jumped on the airport thing because I thought it was the right thing to do,” he said, speaking of his role as an opponent of the Blaine airport. “But my main concern is downtown because I’ve always thought our biggest asset is our million dollar views.”

Hill also invited Michael von Hausen, an urban planner from the city of White Rock, B.C., to talk about his ideas for downtown.

Hill said his top concerns about downtown re-development are preserving views, creating parks and public spaces, and setting the stage for a vibrant business economy.

Allowing buildings to be tall enough and dense enough to keep rents low enough for local businesses could help achieve that, he said.
“It has to work for the community and the people who own the property,” he said.

Creating density, he said, is important – especially when given the cost of building and the initial conditions such as blue clay soil on the west side of Peace Portal Drive – if developers are expected to be able to recover their costs. He used Rick Osborne’s Harborview condominium project on the corner of Peace Portal Drive and H Street as an example.

The blue clay soil is just not conductive to standard construction,” he said. “That and – from a realtorís perspective – you can’t get more than $2,000 per month for rent no matter what kind of business you had in there. Whereas, the same square footage in Bellingham might get you $4,000.”

Galvin agreed. Other problems, he said, are the absentee ownership of land along Peace Portal Drive, in which individuals are simply holding on to pieces of land while waiting for property values to increase, as well as an increase in building material prices that make profitable development more difficult.

“The economics of development have changed dramatically,” Galvin said, adding that the projected cost of Osborne’s project had more than doubled since the city approved its shoreline permit several years ago. “But the city has for the most extent been discovered. In my mind it's no longer a question of if the city is going to grow, it’s how it’s going to grow.”

Tomsic agreed the city’s revitalization efforts seem to be gaining a slow response, but was hesitant to offer taller building limits as a solution to the problem.

“You jump to the tall buildings,” he said. “But there is are at least 50 other questions – the first of which is why would we want to do that? What’s in it for the community? You have to come at it from that standpoint.”

Tomsic said he thinks part of the reason for the sluggish growth in Blaine’s downtown core is because of a lack of economic strategy in the city's comprehensive plan.

“We have laid the ground work and we have been very frustrated,” he said. “We think we have a good vision and have invested a lot of money, but we’re not seeing much happen. One of the reasons I think is because there has not been an economic basis for what we've done. That is an area that we need to focus on in the future.”

To accomplish that, Tomsic said he wants to allow mixed and conditional uses in the central business district, become “more entrepreneurial” and “not be so prescriptive” about details.

“What we’d like to figure out is how to mesh the vision of the community with the realities of private investment,” he said. “I don’t think, however, we need to reinvent the vision of our community. I think that’s solid.”

von Hausen said the city has done enough to lay the groundwork and now the developing community needs to step up to respond and refine it.

“Everyone’s sitting in the cheap seats going ‘More, more, more!’” he said. “But it takes a cooperative effort from both sides.”
Galvin agreed.

“Everybody’s waiting for the first guy to jump in and say, ‘it's alright, it’s going to work,’” he said. “We sort of have a little of that going on. But once one works, everybody else is going to jump on it.”