WWU classes to focus on revitalization of downtown Bellingham

Western Washington University students will soon be taking an active role in helping Bellingham’s downtown revitalization efforts thanks to a new partnership between the University, the City of Bellingham, and the local nonprofit Sustainable Connections.

The partnership has culminated in the formation of the Urban Transitions Studio (UTS), an umbrella organization that will coordinate efforts between the three groups in regards to downtown revitalization and other projects relating to sustainable development planning.

Each year, WWU faculty and project partners will pick a central theme of study for that school year; the initial UTS project will investigate how to bring major retail back to Bellingham’s downtown core, which has been devoid of a major retail anchor since the migration of stores such as JC Penney, The Bon Marche, and Sears to Bellis Fair mall in the 1980s. A corollary project will examine how single-use areas such as the Bellis Fair mall can eventually revert to new, more sustainable community uses, such as urban villages.

“Bellingham’s downtown has rebounded significantly since the immediate years following the exodus to Bellis Fair,” said WWU associate professor of Environmental Studies Nick Zaferatos, one of the instructors in the UTS course sequence. “But its retail is still largely made of smaller specialty shops. This year’s project will look at how large retail anchor businesses might be lured back downtown and what impacts it would have if they came.”

The project seeks to restore Bellingham’s civic center as the community’s premier center of commercial, entertainment, and civic activity, an important step towards making Bellingham a more sustainable community.

"This is a great opportunity to look at ways to foster a vibrant, sustainable downtown and increase living wage jobs," Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike said. "I look forward to the ideas and directions the project will generate."

"Partnerships are essential during these times of constrained resources," he added. "This collaboration is allowing us to participate in an important community project that otherwise would not be possible without additional resources. We are grateful for the creative energy Western Washington University and Sustainable Connections have put into developing it."

Zaferatos said the initial coursework for participating students in the UTS would consist of Planning Studio I, Planning Studio II, Sustainable Design Studio, and Environmental Impact Assessment. Participating WWU faculty include Arunas Oslapas (Engineering Technology), Paul Stangl (Huxley College of the Environment), and Troy Able (Huxley College of the Environment). Future course work could be expanded to include synergies with other WWU colleges such as the College of Business and Economics and its departments of Finance and Marketing.

“There are all kinds of ways to expand this initial service learning concept across campus,” Zaferatos said.

WWU will work closely with its other partners in the UTS, which will provide inroads into valuable data, information, and feedback on the concepts generated on campus.

At the end of each quarter, WWU students will present their ideas and concepts at a public community forum. Final project reports from each class will be compiled as a collection of investigations and made available to the public.

For more information on the Urban Transitions Studio, contact Nicholas Zaferatos, WWU associate professor of Environmental Studies, (360) 650-7660.