Plans for affordable housing lag as waterfront construction progresses

Waterfront construction is expected to be complete by fall 2020. // Photo by Zoe Deal

By Schuyler Shelloner

The Port of Bellingham sold 1.733 acres of Bellingham’s downtown waterfront to Harcourt Developments in May this year for the construction of three new condominium complexes. Harcourt is an Ireland-based construction management company that has exclusive development rights to 19 acres of Bellingham’s downtown waterfront. Construction is anticipated to be completed by fall 2020. According to the architectural proposal, the structures will include commercial space at the ground level for restaurants, drinking establishments, retail and water-oriented businesses, as well as below-grade parking and storage space. The uppermost residents will enjoy unobstructed views of Bellingham Bay and the San Juan Islands.   

The condominiums adhere to the Port and City of Bellingham’s mission to create a mixed-use neighborhood with a combination of commercial, institutional, and educational retail services and housing in the downtown portion of the waterfront, but they will not qualify as affordable housing. According to the City of Bellingham’s Affordable Housing Development webpage, housing facilities are considered affordable when households earning 80 percent of the area’s mean income can afford to live in them without spending more than 30 percent of their income to do so.

The Port of Bellingham requires 10 percent of housing constructed in the waterfront meets the criteria for affordable housing. The 10 percent is a minimum guideline and more may be constructed if proposed.

Brian Gouran, Director of Environmental and Planning Services for the Port of Bellingham, acknowledged the urgent need for housing in Bellingham.

The downtown waterfront construction lot is 50 acres large and will include businesses, public spaces and mixed-income housing. // Illustration courtesy of Harcourt Developments

“It’s not a coincidence that the first project is a housing project,” Gouran said. “Even though they’re going to be higher-end condominiums, it kickstarts the site, it gets people down there.” 

While the downtown waterfront does present between 50-60 acres of opportunity to relieve the densification burden from existing neighborhoods, there’s more planned for the waterfront than housing.

“This is not designed as the solution to all of Bellingham’s housing issues. The intent of this space is to be an extension of downtown, with some housing and a whole mix of uses,” Gouran said. “It’s an element, which is why we have a minimum requirement, but it’s not anticipated to be the solution for affordable housing. It was focused on job creation, our marine trades area, our shipping terminal, public access. ”

Businesses, jobs, public spaces and mixed-income housing are a lot to stuff into a 50-acre box. But that’s precisely what’s called for in the 2013 Waterfront District Sub-Area Action Plan. Patrick Power, director of Harcourt, said in an interview that the company intends to build co-living and senior housing pending an area action plan review next year. There are also plans for a hotel, two new roads and a park.

Quality development can be a double-edged sword, Bellingham City Councilmember Michael Lilliquist said.  Lilliquist worries that developers will have a market incentive to build more high-end, high-cost housing and little incentive to construct affordable housing beyond the mandated 10 percent minimum requirement.

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