The “Stick”-ification of Bellingham

There is a stealth invasion of stick-built apartment complexes in Bellingham. Few have any redeeming architectural merit.

There is a stealth invasion of stick-built apartment complexes in Bellingham. Few have any redeeming architectural merit.

• Topics: Bellingham,

You see them all over town now. First, it was one or two, and then a creeping infection in the city of Bellingham, an infection of ugly, sometimes small and sometimes massive apartment buildings. These architectural furuncles pop up across the city like their dermatological cousins and, if not treated immediately by effective design standards, join with adjacent similarly infected edifices to form multi-family carbuncles that are difficult, if not impossible, to get rid of. And they leave scars as they age.

You can click through the photos at the top of this article to view samples of this “architecture” that, unfortunately, has taken hold in cities across the nation. Bellingham you are not alone! Justin Fox, writing for Bloomberg Business Week describes them thus:

“These buildings are in almost every U.S. city. They range from three to seven stories tall and can stretch for blocks. They’re usually full of rental apartments, but they can also house college dorms, condominiums, hotels, or assisted-living facilities. Close to city centers, they tend toward a blocky, often colorful modernism; out in the suburbs, their architecture is more likely to feature peaked roofs and historical motifs. Their outer walls are covered with fiber cement, metal, stucco, or bricks.”

The term “blocky” does not do justice to these boxes that look more like stacked shipping containers than anything else. They proliferate because they are cheap. According to the article, 20-40% cheaper to build. And they are aardvark ugly. Is this what is taught in architect schools nowadays? The only things missing are the rental ads extolling them as “luxury” apartments as happened with all those “luxury” garden apartments decades ago. Remember?

The Bloomberg article describes these structures as “podium” housing. Usually a concrete, one-story base with a 5, 6, 7-story wood stick structure above. Of questionable safety in a fire. The most prominent examples of these apartment blocks are the student housing projects, NXNW on Lincoln St. and the massive bunker (perhaps it can be repurposed eventually as a jail?) called Gather Bellingham. And yet another blockhouse (warehouse?), Western Edge, to be built on State St. for hundreds of students, all bikers we are told, and so with inadequate parking. And although this podium housing is relatively cheap to build, the rents are no bargain. You lease by the bedroom and pay $700-900 per month - for the moment.

Farihaven Tower (Alliance Properties)
Fairhaven Tower (Image - Alliance Properties)

These edifices create canyons where often sunlight cannot enter. An especially egregious example is the canyonland at the end of Railroad Ave. near Boundary Bay Brewery. With the newest buildouts, Fairhaven canyonland is appearing near the tennis club, pushing from the ground skyward as if it were up-welling magma. Fairhaven will also soon be home to the Fairhaven Tower, a version of a podium building, located at 12th and Harris. It is supposed to be a reprise of the former Fairhaven Hotel that once stood at the corner before being razed in 1956. The reality is that it is one more stick-like building but with a clock tower, added to give some sort of homage to the tower of the former hotel. And don’t forget, there will be penthouses. Bellingham’s answer to the housing crisis.

We are not impressed.

About Dick Conoboy

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 26, 2008

Dick Conoboy is a recovering civilian federal worker and military officer who was offered and accepted an all-expense paid, one year trip to Vietnam in 1968. He is a former Army [...]

Comments by Readers

Konrad Lau

Mar 09, 2019

Sadly, what you are seeing is a scaled down version of what has happened in Vancouver, BC and has been happening in Seattle.

“Environmental Activists” postulate high density housing is the solution for affordable housing and “low impact development”; however, the eyesore generated by the monotonous concrete and glass is never contemplated.

Most of these folks have little artistic imagination even though they claim intellectual enlightenment, compassion and spirituality.

If these cities are a reflection of their idea of “Beautiful Utopia”, I believe I will stick uncivilized chaos instead. At least it’s not boring and ugly at the same time.


Lisa E. Papp

Mar 11, 2019

Thank you for noticing and writing about the lack of beautiful and human and neighborhood-friendly design and architecture in Bellingham’s new and proposed buildings.  Perhaps you…and I…and a few others have an unrealistically high design aesthetic . I used to work for architects, developers, and the American Institute of Architects Seattle Chapter, and was trained in architecture and graphic design. So, I’m wayyyyyy too knowledgable and critical about a lot of building design and quality of construction. “The Bunker” on Forest St. is probably the worst offender. But all the buildings included in your article’s photos are sad and unfriendly-looking and acting (I’m trying to be a little too kind in my comments here, perhaps). The sketch I’ve seen of the boring, blocky apartment (?) and condominium building proposed for the COB Waterfront Development is terrible too. These buildings are going to be with us for a long-time, sadly. 

We need more housing, apartments, public housing, affordable housing, and retail and commercial space in Bellingham. We have to build density and height. Is it too much to ask that we have human and community-friendly buildings with some creative design features, visual interest,  and a welcoming feeling, particularly at street level? I guess it is.

And what about sustainable design? LEED buildings…solar power, green roofs, carbon-neutral, etc..  I know, now I’m just crazy-talking. Sigh… 


Konrad Lau

Mar 11, 2019

Unfortunately, low cost apartment housing projects wind up looking like Soviet Union era installations. This style of building (if I can use that term) is driven by a few motivators.

  1. Once a building plan has been approved, it’s costs and time to complete are fairly stabile points with which to populate future budgets.
  2. These approved designs also provide speed of erection because permitting processes have already been ironed out and standardized construction materials may be used.
  3. Tax payers are looking for the maximum square footage to dollar ratio…period. Most constituencies are trying to get the homeless and poor off of the street and into dry, warm living quarters. When the inhabitants obtain employment and a stabile income, they can provide their own aesthetic touches elsewhere.
  4. Most projects focusing on low cost housing are built on low cost land near to rail links or bus lines and frequently are in semi-industrial locations (re: Soviet Union era).
  5. Most low-income projects assume the inhabitants will NOT be living there indefinitely and are only there with the goal of moving on at some future time.

This is one of the beautiful things about life in America and the American dream. You are not caught in a class limited situation economically or by location. At any time a person may pull up stakes and move to greener pastures to improve their situation.



Dick Conoboy

Mar 18, 2019

The notion, Konrad, that one can just pull up stakes and move is a risible one but unfortunately a meme created by the neoliberals that individual action is what counts in succeeding in life.  Failure is your fault and success is yours alone.   Your own bootstraps will suffice if only you start yanking on them.  Pick up and “move West young man!”  was a prime 19th century example of this individualistic claptrap.  Unfortunately, the monumental dunderhead, Ayn Rand, wrote about her fictional Rand mini-me, John Galt, and succeeded in convincing politicians and business moguls that she was on to something.  She forgets to mention all the ways that she herself was helped along the way inlcuding being housed by realtives in Chicago upon her arrival in the US and her chance meeting with Cecile B. DeMille after she moved to LA.  Sheesh.  What hypocrisy.


Dianne Foster

Mar 22, 2019


What good does it do to “pull up and move on”,  when all the green spaces have been filled with ugly buildings?   And why should college students be consigned to these firetraps?    don’t we have a public sector any more?   The privatization of student housing is criminal;   for true affordable housing,   we need to return to the era of anti-monopoly enforcement.     Get Lakeway Realty and Hammer Properties (and all the rest) out of the landlord business,  and put those houses on the market for working class families.

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