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.

Fairhaven, On the Move

Who’s Living in All Those New Buildings?

J.J. Donovan, the engineer, businessman, and visionary who laid out plans for Fairhaven at the turn of the 19th century, would barely recognize Fairhaven today. But you only have to go back to the last decade or so to be astonished—and maybe a little alarmed—at how quickly Fairhaven has been transformed into a bustling urban district.

New construction—mostly residences or mixed-use buildings—abound. Vacant lots are sprouting multi-story towers, prompting an influx of residents and a question: Who are these people snapping up apartments and Fairhaven condominiums at upwards of $350 a square foot and turning Fairhaven from a sleepy, even grungy Bellingham outpost to the chic residential and tourist destination it is today?

J.J. Donovan statue, Fairhaven

Most Buyers: Locals and Seattle Refugees

Coldwell Banker Bain realtor Gennie Clawson and colleague Eric Larson say people are looking to Fairhaven as a place to downsize, retire, or buy a first home as a young couple. In general, Larson says they come from a variety of places. About a third are locals from Bellingham’s southside looking to trade their house for a low-fuss condo. Another big group—second-home owners or those seeking refuge from Seattle’s traffic and high-priced real estate. Then there’s the couple from San Francisco buying a getaway property, residents from Canada’s British Columbia looking for an affordable space, a Seattle couple buying a studio for their Western Washington University student daughter, and an East Coast retired couple who made the big move to live here fulltime.


Condos, Apartments Booming

Clawson’s research shows more than 200 new condo units alone have been added to Fairhaven’s housing inventory since 2005, when Harris Square added 58 units in three commercial/residential buildings. More buildings are coming, like the distinctive Fairhaven Tower, expected to feature 35 apartments, a penthouse level, and 5,000 square feet of ground floor retail space. Due for completion in late summer of 2020, it is designed to include a clock tower 93 feet above the ground and be reminiscent of the historic Fairhaven Hotel, a landmark from the late 1800s.

“We’re in a rising market,” says Larson, who says most properties sell in fewer than 30 days. “You’re buying a neighborhood, really.”

Joan Pickens, 52, is a 25-year employee of Western’s Huxley College. She lives in a condo in the Fairhaven Gardens building, above The Filling Station restaurant. After living outside the city in Whatcom County, following her divorce she moved to a small apartment downtown and had been shopping for months for a Fairhaven condo. Now, in her 800-square-foot one-bedroom, one-bath on the fourth floor of her terraced building, she sounds like she’s living her dream.

“This is where I was looking,” she says. “For me, it’s close to work. I like the little urban-village thing where you can just walk out your door. I like Fairhaven and I think the house values are good here. I felt like this was a good place to buy.”

Fairhaven’s walkable streets

Noise, Even Train, Not Bad

When asked if there are any downsides, she thinks hard. “Sometimes you have noise,” she finally comes up with. “Not really often. People coming out of bars or restaurants, they forget themselves. That’s usually the only noise, in summer when the windows are open.”

Train noise, a source of controversy for years—Fairhaven’s Chrysalis Hotel & Spa has a card at the front desk warning guests of noise—isn’t bad, Pickens says. “They definitely don’t blow the horn as much as they used to.”

Chrysalis Hotel & Spa, Fairhaven

She likes to get out, but also is content to stay in and play her guitar. The building has underground parking, a plus as Fairhaven grapples with on-street parking. “I feel very safe here,” she says, with“somewhat private, pretty friendly” neighbors. “In a condo, you’re so close to each other…I haven’t even heard the neighbors at all, so this condo happens to be built really well.” She doesn’t mind that it’s uphill to Western, because it’s “really not that bad of a walk.” Pickens usually drives, but can also take the bus.

Ditching Lawn Mower, Snow Shovels

Howard Siegel, 72, moved here from Chicago to be closer to his daughter after his wife passed away. Now a retired electronic manufacturer’s representative, Siegel used to do business here. He lived most of his adult life in a house. Since 2013 he has rented a Fairhaven apartment in the McKenzie Square building on 10th Street and McKenzie. Owning a house with a yard? He’s over it. “When I moved here, I dropped my lawn mower and snow shovels at my daughter’s house and that was it,” he says.

Howard Siegel, Fairhaven

Siegel, who enjoys volunteering at the Pickford Film Center, has a balcony and loves the proximity to mountains and water. Since it’s an apartment building, neighbors are “fairly transient” with six- to nine-month leases offered, but he’s fine with that. He and another long-term resident, Steve, have a standing deal that if they’re both in town, they’ll do Sunday brunch. When Siegel wants to get out of town, he can sling a duffle bag over his shoulder and walk to the train station for a trip to see family in Portland. In the warmer months, he walks to his other volunteer job at Fairhaven’s Community Boating Center. “I love it here,” he says. “It’s perfect for me.”

To continue reading our Urban Living Feature, click here!

"'We’re in a rising market,' says Larson, who says most properties sell in fewer than 30 days. 'You’re buying a neighborhood, really.'"