BELLINGHAM - It's a fixer-upper, but contractors, developers and architects who took an informal tour of the Granary Building on Wednesday, Aug. 15, said it can be renovated and filled with shops, restaurants and offices.
"It's doable, very doable," said Mike Smith, an architect with Zervas Group of Bellingham. "I would love to take a run at this and restore it."
Smith or another architect would need to be hired by a developer willing to invest in the 84-year-old building, which has been unused for decades. Much of the upper areas of the building, especially the cupola, have been exposed to the elements for years. Building experts on the tour said the structures, even in the exposed areas, appeared sound.
One developer was effusive in assessing the potential of the old building.
"It's a beautiful piece of iconic local history and well, well suited to adaptive re-use," said James Willson, a Bellingham property investor.
He wouldn't stick out his neck and say he'd bid on the project, but he was optimistic developers would answer the call, if the Port of Bellingham ever asked.
"I think there's numerous people who would be interested in rehabbing this," Willson said.
Staff at the port, which owns the building, said restoration would be too expensive to be profitable for developers. Staff statements in recent months have suggested the port would tear down the building, but interim Executive Director Rob Fix said staff has not yet made a recommendation to port commissioners.
"We're looking and listening as much as everyone else is. We're listening to ideas and public comments," Fix said. "All that being said ... we still think it's cost prohibitive."
Estimates for renovating the granary have varied. A 2004 study said the cost would be a little more than $7 million, or about $200 per square foot. Port officials cite a study from 2009 that pegs the cost at $14 million, or $533 per square foot. The two studies assume different sizes for the space to be renovated.
Developer John Blethen, who organized the tour, agreed the $14 million cost would be a deal breaker, but he is convinced that cost is inflated. He called for the tour to give independent experts and would-be investors more access to the building to see if they agree that the cost would be that high.
"That's crazy," Smith said of the higher cost estimate. "My philosophy is, it costs just as much to restore as it does to tear down and build new."
Except that in this case, a builder wouldn't be allowed to put a building directly on the water, like the granary is now.
Nor would a current-day builder make a building as sturdy as the granary, Smith said. All the experts on the tour said it was structurally sound, although it would need to be reinforced to handle earthquakes.
The granary area has been called the gateway to new waterfront development on 220 acres of land, most of which the port acquired from G-P in 2005. For now, that development is only in the idea stage.
On Monday, Aug. 13, the Bellingham City Council's Waterfront Development Committee looked at four options for an access road from the Granary Building at 1208 Central Ave. into the waterfront area, two of which assumed the building would be gone. In those cases, the road would go right through the building site.
Mayor Kelli Linville and Public Works Director Ted Carlson said at Monday's committee meeting that the study, intended to show how well traffic moved in the four scenarios, should not be a major factor in the port's decision on whether to keep the Granary Building. Last month, the City Council passed a resolution asking port commissioners to delay demolition of the building and hear proposals from developers.
City officials said they hoped the port would make a decision this fall, so development plans can start moving through the several steps needed for final approval.
The port does not have a timeline for a decision on the granary, port spokeswoman Carolyn Casey said.
Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at email@example.com or call 715-2266.