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How Should Bellingham Grow?

Bellingham's Granary Building at sunset

If you’ve been paying attention to Bellingham’s growth and housing issues, you’re likely familiar with the fact that Whatcom County and its cities are in the process of updating their Comprehensive Plan. The Comprehensive Plan is a 20-year outlook for growth and development, required as part of Washington’s Growth Management Act (GMA). 

The current planning horizon is 2045. By 2050, it is estimated that 1.8 million new people will be living in Washington state. As one of the fastest-growing cities in the state, we can expect Bellingham and larger Whatcom County’s populations to experience a good share of this new growth.

Whatcom County will be adopting a population projection for 2045 and collaborating with its cities to decide where this growth will take place. In a recent article, we argue that Bellingham should take 50% of the County’s new growth to reduce the environmental impact of sprawl while creating a more vibrant economic and cultural center. Now we’re delving into how Bellingham should support this growth.

Three Options for Growth

Engage Bellingham, the City of Bellingham’s planning team, released a survey for community input outlining three growth options for Bellingham: (1) Urban Village Focus, (2) Transit-Oriented Focus (TOD), and (3), Complete Neighborhoods. According to their website, “Any approach will include:

  •  Continued investment and growth in our existing Urban Villages (Downtown, Old Town, the Waterfront, Fairhaven, the Fountain District, Samish Way, and Barkley)

  • Compliance with new state laws, particularly allowing a variety of housing types and allowing at least 4 units on most residential lots in the city.”

The “new state laws” bullet refers to a recent burst of middle housing legislation in Washington that includes House Bills 1110 and 1337. HB 1110 gives property owners the ability to build four units or more on one parcel of land in areas traditionally reserved for single-family homes in effort to increase housing density, whereas HB 1337 pertains to accessory dwelling units (also known as ADUs or “mother-in-law units”). 

Urban Village

In the Urban Village growth scenario, Bellingham’s planning team proposes adding two new Urban Villages and emphasizes the development of middle housing near all Urban Villages.

Urban Villages can be characterized by aesthetically pleasing, people oriented,  walkable, high density, areas that include a variety of community resources. According to the City of Bellingham’s working definition of Urban Villages, “Urban Villages are activity centers that provide pleasant living, shopping, and working environments; strong pedestrian accessibility; adequate, well located open spaces; an alternative, well connected street system; and a balance of retail, office, residential and public spaces.” Think Fairhaven where you’ll find banks, retail, offices, grocery, restaurants/cafes, and housing with open public spaces in the center and all within a 10-minute walk from work or home.

Urban Villages are readily supplemented in all three of the growth options suggested by Engage Bellingham, and they state Urban Village growth will be a focus regardless of which option is chosen. 

Transit-Oriented Development (TOD)

For the TOD approach , Engage Bellingham provides that large scale housing will be focused along high-frequency transit routes, adding three new Urban Villages to Bellingham and  developing middle housing near these routes to encourage residents to use mass transit.

As the name implies, Transit-Oriented Development is designed so residents can meet basic needs without a car. Again, this growth approach provides access to community resources within a 10-minute walk from home to reduce single-occupancy vehicle use, aims to improve accessibility, and seeks to increase environmental sustainability. 

Complete Neighborhoods 

The Complete Neighborhood option outlined by Engage Bellingham involves dispersing growth throughout the city, and “providing small-scale commercial uses in every neighborhood with middlescale housing nearby.” Additionally, this growth option includes annexing new land to the north and south into the city to support future growth.

Similar to the Urban Village and TOD models, Complete Neighborhoods are developed with the intention of providing community resources within walking distance. They’re intended to accommodate services to meet daily needs that a resident might require, from greenspaces to grocery stores, accessed without needing a car or relying on mass transit.

What’s the Best Approach for Growth? 

All of Washington and Whatcom County in particular is growing. As the County considers their 20-year population projection and Bellingham decides what percentage of growth it will prepare for, Bellingham also needs to adequately plan for where and how this growth will occur. 

Historically, Bellingham has taken less than 40% of the County’s growth, leaving other cities and unincorporated areas to accommodate more people than they were prepared for. Given our current homelessness and affordability issues, we are advocates of the County being proactively prepared rather than under prepared for new growth. We believe Bellingham should plan to adopt 50% of Whatcom’s new growth: centralizing development and reducing sprawl, while enriching its existing cultural and economic stability. With this in mind, there are elements from each growth option presented by Engage Bellingham that could be implemented to help sustain future growth while making Bellingham a more vibrant place to live. 

Urban Villages & Small-Scale Commercial Hubs

Increased walkability and the reduction in single-occupant vehicle use has long been a goal of the City. Creating new Urban Villages and allowing mixed-use commercial hubs in every neighborhood furthers the City’s multimodal transportation goals by making community resources (shops, restaurants, banks) more accessible by bike or foot. The North Cordata neighborhood would benefit from an Urban Village with a grocery and convenient amenities. Recently, the land that was designated for a town center was rezoned for apartments. The Birchwood neighborhood is another area that would benefit from the investment of Urban Village development. They need a grocery store and neighbors want safer pedestrian networks. Improving Birchwood’s community’s aesthetic with architectural upgrades and quality pedestrian networks will attract new businesses and strengthen this area of Bellingham’s community. 

TOD Growth

There is also a need for TOD that is coupled by an increase in public transit services. As parking reforms are implemented, housing near public transit lines will be essential for providing transportation alternatives. 

Building large-scale, high density and middle housing near arterials with transportation that allows people to easily access the places they need to go without relying on their vehicles moves Bellingham closer to its transportation and environmental goals. Collaborating with the Whatcom Transit Authority (WTA), the City can support incentives that increase ridership and result in more frequent and predictable transit services that appeal to more residents. 

There is a need for thoughtful transit-oriented development, but it’s only part of the solution. Our community also needs housing variety and diversity.

New Buildable Land

While HB 1110 makes it legal to build middle housing in just about any neighborhood in Washington state, we can’t make unreasonable assumptions that Bellingham homeowners’ desire (or have the ability) to subdivide their lots and build more housing or redevelop their single-family homes into four-plexes. 

Bellingham will need to accommodate a significant number of new homes per year. If the County chooses the baseline medium population projection and Bellingham takes 50% of this growth, we will need about 891 new homes per year to provide the supply to keep up with demand. As we reported in Centralizing Growth in Bellingham, per the Buildable Land report, only 286 acres of buildable residential land remains in Bellingham and much of this land requires new infrastructure to sustain new housing development. 

To support the current and future demand for affordable housing, Bellingham needs more buildable land— land with the capacity to supply the range of housing required to meet the area median income group targets. Annexing new land from the north and south of the City provides a blank canvas that can be adapted with the types of development that will help Bellingham meet its future housing demand, transportation and environmental goals.  

A Tailored Approach to Growth

Because Bellingham is a geologically unique city composed of four towns, one blanket approach to growth isn’t enough. Applying elements from each of the three growth options presented by Engage Bellingham to work with the existing framework of housing and infrastructure seems to be a more efficient way to grow. 

Implementing TOD growth near major transit corridors utilizes existing infrastructure. Investing in the development of Urban Villages in areas that currently need revitalization will bolster economic and social growth. Enhancing existing neighborhoods with small-scale commercial hubs provides accessible services within walking or biking distance. And annexing new land with the capacity to support new housing development and community resources gives the City the flexibility to meet its housing goals while implementing new standards to support its transportation and environment goals. It’s worth noting that the Larrabee Springs development in north Bellingham, which plans to expand if annexed into the city, is currently Washington’s largest green-built, solar community— with affordable homes. Considering integrating elements of their development model could lead to healthier, more affordable, and environmentally-friendly housing throughout our community.

People are drawn to Bellingham for many reasons — its natural beauty, its charm, its culture. With creative solutions in place to support a new generation of growth, Bellingham has the potential to achieve a level of vibrancy that sets the standard for other similar-sized cities across America who are working to balance growth with social and economic stability and environmental sustainability. 


Housing for Bellingham is a community resource that works to inform the public about the processes and terminology associated with housing to encourage greater public input for housing and land-use planning policies.


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Contact your Bellingham City Council representative and tell them you support a proactive plan for sustainable growth.

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