We are living in boom times. Residential living units, whether apartments or condos, seem to be sprouting just about everywhere you look, especially in and around Bellingham.

But with overdeveloped Seattle as a cautionary tale just a couple hours south, we need to get it right in our lovely neck of the woods. Urban living in planned communities where you can walk to amenities like grocery stores, shops, and other services, is a logical step, some say, for cities that want to control growth by building within city limits or developments. Planning experts advocate urban villages as the future for city dwelling, where you can work, relax, and play close to where you live.

We took a look at Bellingham’s urban villages, from Barkley Village to Old Town and downtown, from the Fountain District to Fairhaven, to find out the pros and cons of living there, and what our future might hold.

Bellingham is Growing.

Will Urban Villages Keep Us from Ruining Our City?

Greg Jipson is sipping a warm beverage at the Barkley Village Starbucks at 9 a.m. on a chilly late-winter Monday, where he begins most his mornings. Outside, Jipson’s dog, a curly-haired, jacketed Shih Tzu named Cody, waits for him in the car parked on Barkley Village’s main drag, Newmarket Street. Jipson’s routine, since retiring and moving to this planned community four years ago, is to use Starbucks as a “launching pad” for his day, one that might include volunteer work at the local Habitat for Humanity Store or going to a yoga class at the fitness center nearby.

Walkability a Big Factor

The 67-year-old Jipson, a Bellingham native, worked 40 years (31 as an electrician) at the Alcoa Intalco Works aluminum plant in Ferndale. These days, he talks about his life at Barkley Village with gratitude and a bit of disbelief. “Prior to retirement I raced the clock for every hour I could get,” he says. Now he lives in a one-bedroom, two-bath condo in Barkley Village’s Drake condominiums, where he moved from a bigger, two-level townhouse in south Bellingham the same month he retired, finalized his divorce, and got Cody. “It was the perfect move for me. Here, everything’s more central,” he says. It’s fewer steps to the bedroom, kitchen, den. Outside, the same applies. He can walk to Starbucks (though he prefers to drive) or Haggen Food and Pharmacy for groceries, then meet friends for a margarita at Jalapeños. The dentist is down the street, and so is the library, the gallery and gift store, brew pub, more restaurants. The 16-screen megaplex movie theater is across the way. He peppers his conversation with various versions of “I love it here.”

During February’s snow days, “I woke up to other people shoveling… I walked down to Haggen, got my fresh salad and walked home. How can you beat that?”

Greg Jipson and Cody, Barkley Village residents

From the Fairhaven district to Cordata Parkway, Bellingham is in the midst of a residential building boom. Downtown, several residential and commercial projects are underway, including the historic Leopold’s conversion to a hotel and apartments. In Fairhaven, condos and apartments are barely keeping up with demand. And it’s not just retiring baby boomers preferring the urban life. Millennials (those born between the early 1980s and 1990s) want to work, play, and socialize close to where they live.

Key To The Future?

Bellingham city planners are betting urban living is key to our future. Bellingham has adopted the concept of urban villages—pockets of city-type districts within the city—as a hedge against runaway growth. As of July 2018, Bellingham’s population had grown to an estimated 89,045, up from 80,885 in the 2010 U.S. census.

The city defines urban villages as “activity centers that provide pleasant living, shopping and working environments; strong pedestrian accessibility; adequate, well-located public spaces; a connected street system; and a balance of retail, office, and residential uses.” The idea is to attract development and growth to areas that have existing infrastructure and public amenities, rather than building outward and risking urban sprawl. Urban village designation allows areas like Fairhaven or Barkley Village to get financial incentives and tax exemptions from the city.

The urban village concept has drawn debate. Critics say emphasis on infill siphons attention and funding from affordable single-family homes and neighborhoods in favor of stacked development and apartments. They argue incentives would be better used to tackle Whatcom County’s stagnant wages, spur job growth, and fix crumbling infrastructure.

Bellingham has given the following areas urban village designations, according to the city’s website: Downtown, Fairhaven, the Fountain District, the downtown Waterfront District, Old Town, and Samish Way. (The city has not formally designated Barkley Village as an urban village, but it is included in plans as one.) Other areas, like the fast-growing Cordata neighborhood, are likely to get urban village designation in the future.

Taylor Dock, Fairhaven, leading to Boulevard Park

Skagit County Growth Controversial

In places like Skagit County, the debate is similar—developers have been trying for more than a decade to move forward on a 1,244-acre, mixed-use development that includes 3,500 homes in rural Skagit County. While the debate goes on, places like downtown Bellingham, Barkley Village and Fairhaven are seeing a surge in construction of residential spaces.

Just listen to Fairhaven’s Joan Pickens, 52. After years living in Whatcom County, she first moved to a downtown Bellingham apartment, then to a one-bedroom, one-bathroom condo on 12th Street. “I love the urban concept in a town like this,” says Pickens, a 25-year employee of Western Washington University’s Huxley College. “It’s really convenient. I can walk to the grocery store, the library, restaurants, a great bookstore. There are places to go jogging—I’m right near the [Interurban] trail here. I’ve got the bay, I can walk down to Boulevard Park. It’s just really idyllic for me.”

Howard Siegel fully retired little more than a year ago after a career as a manufacturer’s representative in Chicago. “I drove 25,000 miles a year at least,” he says. “Now I don’t even drive 5,000.”

Barkley Village Has Room to Grow

Urban living wasn’t always so popular. At Barkley Village, a 250-acre development started in 1997, Hamann’s Gallery and Gift was one of a handful of early businesses moving in during the winter of 1997–98. “It was a little bit of a test of faith to move out here,” says longtime owner Julie Coull, standing inside her store on a bright spring afternoon. The move paid off. Now, Newmarket Street, anchored by early tenant Haggen, is brimming with businesses mostly either local (Haggen, Bob’s Burgers & Brew) or upscale (MOD Pizza, Urban Collective).

Julie Coull, Owner of Hamann’s Gallery and Gift

Barkley Village has a lot of room to grow, and the plan is to accelerate that in the near future, says Stowe Talbot, the second-generation co-owner of The Barkley Company and development. “We need more residences out there,” says Talbot in a phone interview. “That’ll be probably the bulk of what we do over the next 20 or 30 years.” Construction on a 91-unit apartment complex, the Weatherby, starts this summer, adding to the 36-unit condo complex where Jipson lives, and the 116-unit Cornerstone Building apartments. Talbot wants to have a hotel built in the next decade. “Housing in particular, there’s an insatiable demand for that.” They have what the city doesn’t—lots of land. “The mayor (and city officials) are really encouraging us to do more residential.”

Barkley Village is working on the community charm that’s natural for historic Fairhaven. Activities like wine and whiskey walks, running races, music and festivals on the Barkley Village Green are helping. Fairhaven’s Wednesday Farmers Market is moving to Barkley, where popular fundraiser Handbags for Housing is set for June 6 this year.

Focus Moves to Residential

Drawing an age-diverse population is a goal, says Talbot, who is exploring bringing subsidized senior housing to Barkley. Along with a popular trail network, Talbot wants to see tennis courts and children’s play areas, an indoor swimming pool, and a health club—maybe even a partnership with the YMCA. Barkley’s build has been slow and deliberate, striving for the right retail mix. Talbot hopes to do the same with residential. He wants to avoid noise, crowding and overdevelopment, planning to add a building each year for the near future.

New construction, Fairhaven

But for some, the genie’s already out of the bottle. The amenities and historic charm that make Fairhaven popular might be doing too good a job. Fairhaven parking has become a huge problem, and residential towers are changing more than just the skyline. One of the reasons Siegel, the retiree from Chicago, moved to Fairhaven is he loved the bay view from his balcony, where he could watch the ferry come and go. But recently, a new building wiped out his view. “It’s growing. That’s the negative,” he says. “But who am I to complain, coming from Chicago?”

Howard Siegel, Fairhaven resident

To continue reading our Urban Living Feature, click here!

"“It was the perfect move for me. Here, everything’s more central.""