Bellingham's City Center – Downtown, Old Town and the Waterfront District

B​ellingham’s City Center is the heart of our community. It is a key regional business center, an important visitor destination, and a place where Bellingham residents come together to live, work and play. Preserving and strengthening our City Center is a top priority. Below I describe some characteristics of this area and just a few … Read more

June 07, 2013 - by Mayor Kelli Linville

B​ellingham’s City Center is the heart of our community. It is a key regional business center, an important visitor destination, and a place where Bellingham residents come together to live, work and play.

Preserving and strengthening our City Center is a top priority. Below I describe some characteristics of this area and just a few of the many steps we are taking to make sure it thrives as the vibrant, productive center of our community.

Three districts make up our City Center: Downtown, Old Town and the soon-to-be redeveloped Waterfront District. Today our City Center is home to about 900 businesses that provide more than 8,000 jobs of all kinds: office, restaurant, light industrial, retail and more. In addition to an interesting and diverse business community, about 2,800 people live here, with more housing choices available each year.

Our City Center is a wonderful blend of old and new, with something for everyone: boutiques, high-tech firms, fine dining, galleries, historic buildings, public art, food trucks, marine services, theatres, offices, funky shops, music venues, special events, apartments with stunning views, parks and trails, markets, manufacturing and much more. Our City Center and its amenities regularly receive regional and national recognition.

Downtown Plan: renewing our commitment to downtown

What do you love about downtown Bellingham? What do you wish for downtown? These questions kicked off the “myDowntown” planning effort, designed to identify actions the City and the rest of our community can take to support a vibrant, thriving downtown. Our aim is to create an updated blueprint and action strategy for the next 20 years, one that also is carefully integrated with the Waterfront District, Old Town and other surrounding areas.

Downtown planning began in 2011, when we invited people to share their experiences and ideas to help create a vision and determine where the City and other organizations should focus resources and attention. Key activities of this comprehensive planning project include extensive public and stakeholder involvement, pilot projects, a parking study, analyzing zoning and development regulations, and conducting an inventory of housing and historic resources. A draft will be considered by the Planning Commission and City Council later this year and will include more opportunities for the public to provide input. Information about this process can be found on the City website at

Our commitment to Downtown is a priority. We are continuing to invest in downtown, with new services and amenities for people to enjoy and businesses to thrive.

Old Town provides vital link

Old Town is a vital link between the Downtown and the Waterfront District. Plans adopted in 2008 set the stage for this area to mature into an lively, interesting urban village by encouraging a mix of diverse, eclectic residential and commercial uses, providing safe, convenient pedestrian experiences, and ensuring new development is mindful of views and landmark buildings. Current City projects in this area include working with public and private partners to develop under-utilized properties in Old Town and developing strategies to improve the use of Maritime Heritage Park.

Waterfront redevelopment strengthens City Center

Many of the questions I have received lately about our downtown core are about how it might be impacted by the development of the Waterfront District. As we begin to direct resources toward the waterfront, we will continue to focus attention and resources on the surrounding areas as well. Our commitment to our whole City Center remains a priority and our Waterfront Plan is designed to strengthen all three areas of it: the Downtown, Old Town and the Waterfront District.

The proposed Waterfront Plan describes a long-term redevelopment project to convert a brownfield industrial site into a vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood that includes three miles of restored shoreline. The proposed plan includes economic, environmental and community objectives to restore the health of the land and water, improve waterfront access and promote jobs and a healthy, dynamic waterfront economy. The Waterfront Futures Group charted the course for this work with its Vision and Framework Plan, and the principles it described are very much alive today.

The Waterfront Futures Group, other public feedback, experiences from other cities and professional best practices emphasize the importance of connecting the existing downtown core to the waterfront, encouraging us to forge convenient, strong links and create complementary uses. The draft plan we have presented to the community meets these values. Each phase of the plan carefully considers how the Downtown, Old Town and Waterfront District will work together and support each other.

The draft plan includes a build-out scenario that starts closest to downtown and works its way toward the water over the course of many years. The plan calls for early investments in connections, such as a planned multi-modal connection from the head of the Whatcom Waterway to Old Town. These strategies and others will help ensure new development is compatible with and supports adjacent areas, encourages uses that complement – not replace – neighboring uses, and integrates new streets and trails with surrounding systems.

The Planning Commission completed its review of the draft Waterfront Plan this month. The plan will be considered by the Bellingham City Council this summer and fall. All the Waterfront Plan documents are available on the City and Port websites. Details about a public information session, public hearings and chances to tour the waterfront site will announced soon.

City Center action plan launched

We are now beginning work on a comprehensive action plan of projects and activities for the entire City Center: the Downtown, Waterfront District and Old Town areas. This combined implementation plan will help us make sure that we are directing attention and resources to all areas of our City Center. We have long-range goals and policies for each of these areas, and this action plan will be a list of specific projects to implement. Similar action plans from the past have resulted in building the Depot Market Square, creating a new Arts District with arts and entertainment facilities and streetscape improvements, and revitalizing the Railroad Avenue/Holly Street intersection. Projects expected to appear on our next action plan include street, parking and maintenance improvements, art installations, beautification projects and incentives for historic building redevelopment. A draft is expected to be presented to the City Council and the community early in 2014.

Other actions underway

I’ve outlined above several significant initiatives to support our City Center, but there are dozens of other projects underway of all types and sizes. They include: intersection improvements and striped crossings for pedestrians, upgrades to the downtown parking structure, new bicycle racks, new rain gardens, construction of a roundabout at the intersection where State Street turns into the Boulevard, and more. We appreciate your support of these projects and hope you’ll let us know what you think about them.

Meeting the needs and supporting the vitality of our City Center is a top priority for me. Please be sure to let me know what you think about how we can make the most of our City Center by contacting my office at 360-778-8100 or


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