Vacant since 1988, former Bellingham JCPenney building eyed for residential, retail development

BELLINGHAM, Wash. -- Bellingham city leaders are considering a public-private partnership that would redevelop the long-vacant former JCPenney building on Cornwall Avenue and make downtown "the heart of our city" once again. 

According to a news release from Mayor Killi Linville's office, the building at 1314 Cornwall Ave. would be converted into a mixed-use residential, office and retail development.

“A community's downtown is everyone's neighborhood," Linville said. “It is the first place visitors and potential investors look to understand the community's economic health and character. This is why I am so deeply committed to the health of our city center. We are fortunate to have a local business and development community, such as this development team, so invested in the return of downtown as the heart of our city."

The mayor will bring an agreement to the table for City Council consideration. A public hearing on the proposal is set for Sept. 24. 

Downtown Bellingham was the center of community life and economic activity beginning in 1891 with the merging of the towns of Whatcom and Sehome to create “New Whatcom," the mayor's office said. 

The 1988 opening of the Bellis Fair Mall resulted in the closure of anchor retail tenants and subsequent blocks of vacancy, draining much of the activity from the downtown core.  While downtown has nearly recovered from the loss of its retail center, one major vacancy remains.

The proposed agreement and associated lease are with private partners Jeff McClure and Jeff Kochman and contain binding terms for the redevelopment of the property. The city would purchase the land, and the private partners would purchase the building from current owner Whatcom Center LLC, managed by Bruce Tolchin, for $2.85 million.  

The city would enter a 50-year land lease with the developers McClure and Kochman with an option to purchase. The purchase option and future rent adjustments would ensure that public investment is repaid over time.

The building has been vacant since 1988, and the private market has not shown interest in activating or renovating the building. This agreement would leverage private investment while advancing the city's goals of supporting additional market-rate housing and revitalizing the downtown district.

“I am excited to propose that the city form a public-private partnership with local developers.  Together, we will transform this vacant building into a vibrant commercial and residential property,"  Linville said. “More jobs and more housing is exactly what we need to continue the positive momentum that is building in our city center."

The project

If approved, the new project would be called Dock Street Flats and is inspired by the original street name, Dock Street, which was later changed to Cornwall Avenue.

The developers have agreed to undertake a major renovation of the building at an estimated cost of $12 million, including the cost to purchase the existing building for $712,500. The developers would also commit to procure all services to design and engineer the renovation and obtain all financing and required actions to redevelop the building.

“We are very excited about this project," Kochman said. “It represents a key component to a long City and community supported redevelopment of Downtown.  Our goal is to bring an active and vibrant building back on line with housing and retail activity contributing to an active street. The fact that the City was willing to work with us on this redevelopment is extremely gratifying.  We are committed to making it a success."

Proposed redevelopment of the property includes residential and commercial uses. Adding two more floors to the building would allow between 50 to 90 market-rate apartments with a range of sizes and configurations.

The building's 5,800 square feet of commercial space, which includes three separate retail storefronts, would be activated, and plans include the retrofit of the building façade, creating a new grand entrance, as well as windows and courtyards.

The existing basement would be converted into a parking garage that includes bike parking. Improvements are also planned for the abutting public spaces to beautify and activate the street.

If the City Council approves the deal, the sale could close by the end of the year. Construction could begin by late 2019.