Monday, February 2, 2009

Zonemaven Reflects on Citizens' Forum Discussion

Last Saturday about 40 citizens met to discuss growth issues for Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham. (Click here to read my original blog entry announcing this event) This blog entry is not designed to be a summary of the give and take but to provide some comments on several aspects of the discussion which easily filled the allotted two hours. I will leave it to others to summarize the overall points of view and will post links to those summaries as they become available. Nonetheless, I found the session very informative and free-flowing especially without an official entity, seated on high, as if in judgment.

Only two members of the Bellingham City Council attended. Nobody came from the present Whatcom County Council but there may have been one from the County Planning Commission. Not a soul came from the Bellingham Planning Commission. I know these folks are busy, however, had I been in their shoes, I would have wanted to hear directly from the citizens. But that is the view from my angle. The Herald was also noticeable in its non-attendance. I will resist the urge to further characterize these absences. [I do note that certain “experts” (government and private sector planners) will offer a teaching experience to Whatcom County residents on Tuesday, 3 February in the afternoon (click here to see the Herald piece on this “short course”). Healthy doses of skepticism should be ingested prior to this event.]

I also noticed the dearth of any people from the administration of Western Washington University at our Saturday gathering. Dan Warner, a professor at WWU, made a presentation, however, he was not there to represent the university but came as a member of Futurewise. I had sent notification emails to all the senior staff and management of WWU prior to the event. I included the new Vice-President for University Relations, Steve Swan, in my notification email but, if he attended, he did so clandestinely. In my view, this is yet another instance which typifies the university’s absence from the conversation on growth in Bellingham. This is an institution which houses only 3,500 or so of its students and expects the neighborhoods to accommodate the rest – 8,000 or 9,000 give or take a few.

“When the students arrive, who cares where they rent?

That’s not our department, says WWU’s president.”*

The reason for my disappointment is the persitant disengagement of the university from a major quality of life issue for the permanent residents and homeowners of this town and from a situation in which the large numbers of its students distort the rental market rates and make it more and more difficult for a single family to rent a home in this city. I recently gave an example of this in my blog entry of last October 9th (click here to read the entry) wherein a family was forced out of a rental whose price rose to $2,200 per month and had to move to the county. Five students now rent the place illegally at $550/month each. The three members of the ousted family are now commuters from the county.

This warping of rental rates was also brought up during the meeting by a prominent member of the York Neighborhood, which has seen its share of illegal rooming houses but which also does more than most neighborhoods to be inclusive of all its residents. This neighborhood may soon be nominated for sainthood as it is considering actually working with the city on higher density infill on its downtown side border. (Click here to read the Herald article on the subject.) As commendable as this is, the neighborhood association ought to demand a quid pro quo from the city by which the city would rid the neighborhood of its plague of illegal rooming houses. In fact, if all the neighborhoods would adopt such a stance, perhaps the city would begin to pay attention to its codes and, by extension, to its neighborhoods.

*Thanks to mathematician and songwriter Tom Lehrer the spirit of whose lyrics I have appropriated here from the song entitled “Wernher von Braun”.

“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department, says Wernher von Braun.”

Check out the entire lyrics for this by clicking here.


Anonymous said...

Seven City council members are on record (according to their "profiles") as being supportive of preserving the character of city neighborhoods. Does it tell you anything about committment that only two turned up at a public meeting involving district voters' attitudes on such matters.

zonemaven said...

You forgot the mayor.

Our city has been blinded by the waterfront development and, consequently, cannot see that the so-called character of our neighborhoods was compromised over the last several decades by inattention to codes. It will take years, if one were to begin today, to roll back the damage done not only to the physical aspects of our neighborhoods but also to the psyche of the public who hear one thing and see another. They may have become numb but they are not blind.

This indifference on the part of our city leaders will come home to roost during the next election.