A Ghost Road: San Juan Boulevard

Examine a map of the southeastern quadrant of Bellingham and you will see that Samish Way, Yew Street, Lakeway Drive, and Lincoln Street form a roughly shaped rectangular loop. Running north/south through this rectangle is the broad top ridge of Samish Hill. A line drawn from the south end of Racine Street (on the border of Samish and Puget Neighborhoods) to the north end of 48th Street (just north of Samish Way) represents the current city limit and the edge of Samish Neighborhood.

You will also note that there is neither a north/south nor an east/west thoroughfare through this rectangle. As residential development gradually climbed eastward up Samish Hill toward the city limit it became apparent that both of these thoroughfares would eventually be needed to meet the transportation needs of future development as it spread to the top ridge of Samish Hill.

San Juan Boulevard was originally conceived to be an East-West connector between Yew Street and Samish Way. A portion of it running west from Yew Street through Whatcom Falls and Puget Neighborhoods was built some time ago. It dead-ends at the northeast corner of Samish Neighborhood near the Beth Israel Synagogue. The other end of San Juan Boulevard was to connect to Elwood Avenue where it meets 40th Street. This link, when constructed, would complete the east/west connector between Yew Street and Samish Way and service future development at the top of the hill.

Detailed engineering plans for the connector were developed by the city around 2002-2004. Recognition of the necessity of this route to satisfy future transportation needs led the city to include, as a prerequisite in its Comprehensive Plan, the construction of the final connector. This meant that no development on the top of the ridge could proceed without first building the connector.

The connector has yet to be built. Various issues have delayed implementation of the plans. The terrain is rough with steep slopes. Cost estimates rose steadily. Interest in development dropped sharply with the nationwide economic downturn in late 2008. With no viable source of public funding, little interest from local developers, and continuing escalation of cost estimates, the project to build the connector quietly disappeared from the city’s long-term transportation plans. However, the pre-requisite for the connector was never removed from the Comp Plan. So, while there are no plans to build the road, its ghost remains as a prerequisite for development.

With the recent recovery of the local real estate market, interest in development has grown. Current owners of land along the top of the ridge would like to begin building homes on their property. Standing in their way is the pre-requisite for San Juan Boulevard. Making the economics of housing development work with the addition of costs to build the connector will be difficult, maybe prohibitive, so they are currently asking the city to delete the prerequisite for the San Juan Boulevard connector. This would remove a roadblock to development and allow them to begin moving forward with their plans.

The Samish Neighborhood Association has long recognized that future development on the top of Samish Hill would happen. Assuming this development complies with existing single-family residential zoning we would expect to support it. We will, however, insist that the need for an east/west thoroughfare will still exist even if San Juan Boulevard is never finished. Without a major arterial road, new traffic from development that may include up to 600 new homes will have to filter through existing narrow residential streets to get into the city. This is, we believe, not a burden that current Samish residents should be required to share.

A proposal to amend city planning documents to remove San Juan Boulevard as a prerequisite was docketed in late 2018. Amendments like this require the city to follow a Type VI process, which includes opportunities for public comment and passage by the City Council of an ordinance to amend the Comp Plan. During docketing hearings the need for a revised, detailed transportation plan was clearly identified. We supported docketing because discussion of a new plan is appropriate.

There are now (as of May 22, 2019) two separate applicants requesting this change in the Comp Plan. The city, in correspondence with the applicants, has requested substantially more information about the overall project elements including a detailed transportation plan. Two extensions to the time limit for submitting this information have been granted with the latest set to expire at the end of July. The type VI process cannot begin until the applicants submit their plans.