Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Lesson in Stopping Blight: Condemnation in Bellingham

The Aloha Motel in Bellingham could be considered a lesson on the great good the internet provides when researching a place to spend the night. Over the years a fair number of unsuspecting travelers have stumbled into Bellingham's not so great areas with the Aloha Motel being one of a string of crime ridden motels along the gateway entrance to my fair city.

The City of Bellingham appears to be on the cusp of condemning this motel property on Samish Way (COB Condemnation Ordinance). 

Condemnation based on blight in Washington State is governed by Revised Code of Washington 35.80A.010. A simple law that sets a rather high bar in my view for condemnation:

RCW 35.80A.010 states:

Every county, city, and town may acquire by condemnation, in accordance with the notice requirements and other procedures for condemnation provided in Title 8 RCW, any property, dwelling, building, or structure which constitutes a blight on the surrounding neighborhood. A "blight on the surrounding neighborhood" is any property, dwelling, building, or structure that meets any two of the following factors: (1) If a dwelling, building, or structure exists on the property, the dwelling, building, or structure has not been lawfully occupied for a period of one year or more; (2) the property, dwelling, building, or structure constitutes a threat to the public health, safety, or welfare as determined by the executive authority of the county, city, or town, or the designee of the executive authority; or (3) the property, dwelling, building, or structure is or has been associated with illegal drug activity during the previous twelve months. Prior to such condemnation, the local governing body shall adopt a resolution declaring that the acquisition of the real property described therein is necessary to eliminate neighborhood blight. Condemnation of property, dwellings, buildings, and structures for the purposes described in this chapter is declared to be for a public use.

So the law requires 2 out of 3 issues need to be present before a property can be condemned as blight.

In the case of the Aloha Motel number 1 in the RCW does not apply as the building is most definitely still occupied. For number 2, the city has taken the view that the site is a threat to public health safety and welfare. In the case of the motel there has been plenty of crime and and multiple rooms have been closed due to drug lab and drug use contamination in the rooms. And of course number 3 dovetails with number 2 with lots of well documented illegal drug activity.

It has been a while since the City of Bellingham has moved to condemn blighted properties. In the late 1990s the city went after three properties in the downtown core at the intersection of Holly Street and Railroad. Not all of these condemnations were completed, but they did lead to a significant negotiated improvement to the area.

The first was at a property where the building on the site had burned. For several years the shell of the 3-story building stood vacant. The property owner then tore the shell down and constructed a fence around the basement pit in order to avoid the public safety aspect of the law. The blight was such an affront to common decency the city began the process of condemning the site on number 1 and number 2 of the RCW and eventually acquired the site. The site is still owned by the city and is now occupied with a commercial/office building.

The second condemnation process at the same intersection was at a 2-story vacant brick building that formerly housed the Flame Tavern (a personal favorite). Once the Flame closed the building was boarded up for years and thus met the RCW criteria number 1. Once chunks of the brick work facing began to drop onto the sidewalk the building met criteria number 2. The building was subsequently demolished and replaced with a commercial/apartment building.

The third condemnation process was similar to the current motel situation. A motel at the site was a chronic source of safety issues with frequent police and fire calls as well as rampant drug activity. Condemnation proceedings were started and a settlement was agreed to whereby the building was converted into commercial, office and apartments.

So I will opine that the new condemnation approach is a good thing. Allowing a property to degrade a community and property values should not be tolerated and I applaud Mayor Linville for bringing this forward. It will make for a better city and will greatly improve the potential redevelopment of the neighborhood that has been impacted by this blight.

I will add that the RCW is in my mind far too restrictive and disregards how harmful blight can be to a community. The fact is the motel owner could have abandoned the buildings and boarded them up and fenced them off in a manner that would have precluded number 2 and 3 in the RCW. I would suggest that that approach may have been the early stages of what took place in Detroit and other blighted communities. It may be worth while to reconsider the definition of blight before the problems happen. 


Anonymous said...

Alas, the Starbuck/McClure building is reportedly over an abandoned coal mine. 80 feet down the tide still washes in and out.

Lucky for the public, Mayor Asmundson insisted that taxpayer assume all liability if the foundation fails. That is happening. You can already see a swell crack across the brand new concrete floor of the newer coffee shop. The intersection of Holly and RR has to be repeatedly dug up and re-filled due to the coal mines in this area.
Who owns the building you may ask? Who got beat up and arrested for dare proposing a park here? Which Nurse got arrested and jailed as a possible conspirator?

This was another sucker deal done for insiders with the taxpayer on the hook. Not a shiny example of urban renewal. We can expect some insider will end up with a newer crack hotel at this location if Bellingham history holds true.

Dan McShane said...

Anon: The idea of a park at the pit site did not come, at least publicly , until after the condemnation process. The end result was not for everyone, but the blight was removed. And the coal mine and a perspective on your story is here:

Geoffrey Middaugh said...

Is the "dip" in Holly Street in front of the Little Cheerful, subsidence from this mine?

And the condemnation was explained by the City Attorney at MNAC last week. There is public support to decrease blight, all cynicism aside.

Dan McShane said...

The dip in Holly Street could be related to slow mine subsidence, but there are alternative explanations as well. Given the geology under Holly at that spot, I would suspect even if it is the mine the rate of subsidence will not be fast but very slow. This is due to the fact that depth to bedrock is 30 or 40 feet and the overlying unit is a silt/clay glacial marine drift.