Finding a place to live that's affordable and close to campus can be tricky. Unfortunately for college students, it looks like house hunting could get trickier.
Many of the houses and apartments on Sehome Hill, especially on North Garden Street, North Forest Street, and High Street, are rentals occupied by college students. However, the new buildings going up between these places are definitely not for undergrads. New condominiums in the Sehome neighborhood are going for huge prices because of the view of Bellingham Bay. One example is the Laurel Park condominiums, currently under construction at 1000 High St. The condos are between 700 and 1,800 square feet, and range in price from $288,000 to $689,000. On average, the condos are approximately $362 per square foot, which is a few dollars less than what I pay for a month's rent.
Laurel Park isn't the first of its kind in the neighborhood. In the four story building at 1000 N. Garden St. that was built just this year, a 739-square-foot, one bedroom, one bathroom condo costs $234,000. Another four story building is expected to be completed in 2008 at 615 N. Garden St. The condos there will go for approximately $393 per square foot, according to http://condocompare.com.
It's not a coincidence that so many condos are being built in the Sehome area. According to a 2005 zoning plan for the Sehome neighborhood by the City of Bellingham Planning Department, most of the property from North Forest Street to Indian Street, and from Chestnut Street to Western's campus, is zoned for “multifamily residential, high density” housing. In other words: they are zoned for apartments and condos.
The idea behind filling in the empty spaces around town with condos and apartments is to prevent urban sprawl. By putting in high density housing in neighborhoods on and around Sehome Hill, we're keeping a bunch of single-family houses with big yards from springing up outside the city limits. This is economical because more people are close enough to walk or take the bus to campus or downtown, which prevents traffic congestion. It's also an environmentally friendly idea, because by building up instead of out, we're preventing development in the forests and hills we Bellinghamsters love so much.
The new Laurel Park condos are in what is designated as “Area Seven” in the neighborhood plan: the four-block section of High Street stretching from Chestnut Street to Ivy Street. The plan notes the value of the view of the bay from this area and designates it for high density development. In an article in the Bellingham Herald from Sept. 3, columnist Dean Kahn wrote, “With luck, Laurel Park will set the standard for the apartments and condos that [architect Fred Wagner] expects will replace older houses in the neighborhood in the years to come.”
So, with luck, the standard cost of living on High Street will one day be…astronomical? How is that a good thing? Sure the view would be great from your living room on the fourth floor, but the view is also great from the top of Sehome Hill, or from Larrabee State Park, or from the many other beautiful vantage points all around Whatcom County that you don't have to pay extra money for. Do people really pay that much money for a tiny condo with a view of the bay?
Not only does the price seem steep, but it bodes ill for students living in the neighborhood. If cheap rental houses on High Street are replaced by expensive condominiums, students will lose a neighborhood that is affordable and close to campus. Of course Bellingham is a great place for professionals and retirees to settle down, but the student population is growing too. It doesn't make sense to get rid of student housing. Rows of pricey condos might make High Street look nicer and more attractive at first glance, but they will force students out of the area.
The city can definitely fit more housing in the Sehome neighborhood, but planners should take student interests into account. Apartments like the ones closer to the south side of campus and on 21st Street, for instance, could be built on Indian, High, Garden, and Forest Street. That way, more students could live closer to campus, and the city could achieve higher density in the neighborhood. I've lived on North Forest Street for almost two and a half years, and I don't see any reason why students can't peacefully coexist with families and retirees, as long as everyone is considerate of everyone else in the neighborhood. It's not that older folks shouldn't move in, but students shouldn't have to move out.