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) along Samish Hill 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 arterial road through this rectangle. As residential development gradually climbed eastward up Samish Hill toward the city limit, it became apparent that both of these arterial roads 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 the southern edges of Whatcom Falls and Puget Neighborhoods was built some time ago. It dead-ends near the northeast corner of Samish Neighborhood near the new Beth Israel Synagogue. The other end of San Juan Boulevard was intended 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 pre-requisite 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 plan. The terrain to be traversed 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 Comprehensive 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 construction of the San Juan Boulevard connector. Making the economics of housing development work with the addition of costs to build the connector will be difficult, maybe even prohibitive, so the developers are currently asking the city to delete the pre-requisite 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 arterial road 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 pre-requisite 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.

As of February 7, 2019, the applicants (Ron Jepson and the 2 landowners) have asked for their docketed request (related to changes in the Comp Plan) be postponed until sometime in 2020.