Built to Last

Preserving Buildings & Communities

by Todd Sprague

At 11, David Johnston ’97 was delivering papers for the Bellingham Herald. Today he is a co-owner and dedicated steward of the historic Herald building and other early 20th-century properties in Bellingham and beyond. Along the way, he has helped place 11 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

David Johnston ’97

Photo by Dan Levine.

His journey has been shaped by inspiration from Evergreen faculty member Sean Williams and a long-term partnership and friendship with Bellingham entrepreneur Bob Hall.

“I was in the first ‘Irish Experience’ program with Sean Williams,” Johnston recalled. “She empowered me to see life through my own lens, gave me confidence, taught me to write very well, and taught me to sing traditional Irish songs.”

While that program did not travel to Ireland, Johnston is closing the circle by making his first visit this spring, meeting up with Williams and her students.

So how did he end up investing in and revitalizing historic buildings? “I started working for Bob Hall, doing demolition and heavy construction, when I was still at Evergreen,” Johnston explained. “When I graduated… Bob took me under his wing and started to teach me the philosophical and community-minded approach he had (to property redevelopment).”

Trained as an architect, Hall was also “very interested in history, context, and how a particular building functioned for tenants and for the community. Bob taught me about stewardship, saying that we’ll only be here a short spell, but these buildings are built in ways that, with proper care, can be here for hundreds of years more.”

Johnston took over management of Hall’s office, eventually becoming the company’s chief financial officer and a co-investor in many projects. “I came with a very good sense of money and being responsible with money from a very young age. So I had a context to apply that on a larger scale.”

Johnston said he enjoys creating spaces where small businesses can prosper, contributing to the economy, the community and the sense of place. “When you renovate a building and take something that was poorly utilized, make a beautiful space and a business moves in and thrives, or a person moves into a livable space and they have a home, it’s rewarding to see the work being lived in.”

We couldn’t fit everything into the paper version of Evergreen Magazine, so here are some additional highlights from our interview with David Johnston.

Undoing past “improvements” to historic buildings. Some properties Johnston has been involved with have been boarded up and on the brink of demolition. Others have involved undoing bad remodels from ’60s and ’70s where buildings had been “modernized” by installing drop ceilings, often cutting off light from large clerestory windows. “Those attempts to modernize seemed like they would be effective at the time, but they weren’t really that great for the people inside,” he explained. “High ceilings and a lot of light make for a more attractive, healthier space.”

Johnston said that type of space is also more marketable and can be more affordable, especially for small businesses, than suburban retail and office space.

How did his business weather the Great Recession? “It has not been difficult for us in the last five years,” he explained. “We buy historic buildings and renovate and own them for the long haul…As the markets started to get crazy, we weren’t buying buildings or riding the market up with a lot of other people. We looked at it and it didn’t make sense. So when the recession hit, we just continued the business as we’d done it for the past decade together. ‘Here’s what it’s really worth’ and we were able to buy at that level. If you hadn’t overextended yourself and weren’t over leveraged, banks could see that. Appraisers were still giving values, and we were never saying a building worth a million dollars was worth two million. Bankers can see through BS.”

Johnston added, that a lot of this work “comes down to relationships and trust with bankers and others. We do what we say we’re going to do and we trust them to do the same.”

Why the focus on early 20th Century buildings? “After 1900, from about 1905 up to about 1930, the quality of the bricks and the overall construction was better. In Bellingham, that was a good time for buildings and a lot of construction happened up until the Depression.”

Have there been common themes in your career? “Stewardship, relationship, and deliver on your promises.”

How has your Evergreen education contributed to your success? “Evergreen can teach you to develop and trust your intuition, develop critical thinking and expand what you know. But there’s another element to the freedom at Evergreen and the way in which students are able to explore their ideas and material and come up with a new angle. It’s not so much thinking outside the box, but that there is no box. In order to evaluate a building and think about what’s possible and what can be a reality—in an economic, architectural and relational way—that intuition is so important. It’s not just about unbounded creativity, but ‘if we did this and this, this type of business could thrive here.’ Or if we already know an existing business looking for space, it could be used by them.”

He said that forward thinking—about design, uses, needs of tenants and other considerations—provides a solid business foundation. When you’re thinking about the tenant and use from the beginning, “If you redevelop it, they will come.”

How is redevelopment good for the environment? Johnston noted that in Washington, more than third of all material in the landfill is waste from construction or demolition. “To save a building from being torn down is the largest thing you can do in terms of re-use and dollars— compared to the resources used for new building.”

He said that while that’s a big aspect for him, he doesn’t necessarily think of himself as being a “green” person. “I come at it from a different point of view; what it means for communities. Retaining and supporting our sense of place. If you go out into sprawled out places, it’s not somewhere you’ll think of 20 years from now that gives you a sense of what our community is from an architectural and place point of view. The greater density in downtown cores, the more vital and vibrant they are, the more people feel like they are in a neighborhood” and connected to a place.

What’s been one of the most challenging aspects of your career and work life? “It’s all on us. These are all our dollars and finances that we’re working with. We’ve only grown and have always done it right the first time, but the challenge is to manage the stress.”

What does revitalization of historic properties mean for communities? “One of the most important things that most people can relate to and understand is that we want to have in-fill in our existing city boundaries and existing city land rather than sprawling outward. We all want to preserve our farmland. Part of our business model is promoting in-fill by keeping buildings standing, people living downtown, and supporting a more thriving downtown. A 10,000 square foot lot downtown can be the location for a 40-unit residential building. The Growth Management Act requires that we plan for population growth and accommodate it. When you can show that you can accommodate growth within your existing city's boundaries then you don't have to sprawl outward onto farmland."

What’s the next big thing on your agenda? “My work with the Skipping Stone Foundation.” It’s a non-profit he created. He meets “with existing non-profits to create new programs that serve the people they serve in an artistic, collaborate, intuitive way that will help teach and grow self-sufficiency, esteem, and understanding that we’re strongest through our interdependence.” The work focuses on agencies and needs in Whatcom County. Examples include working with the food bank, the Brigid Collins Family Support Center, and an Opportunity Council program to reconnect homeless people to family members. “From living on the street to living with or near family,” he explained.

“I ask (the agencies), ‘What could we try that you’d want to do that you haven’t had money for?’ It’s entrepreneurial philanthropy.”

Grants range from $3,000 to $5,000 and are generally limited to Whatcom County. His only philanthropic activity outside the county is an art scholarship at Evergreen and funding to help cover airfare to Ireland for some students in Sean Williams’ “Irish Experience” program that could not otherwise afford to travel (another individual contributes to this as well).

Johnston funds Skipping Stone now, but he would eventually like to solicit additional support to extend the work.