Port and city of Bellingham propose big waterfront land swap

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 3, 2012 

BELLINGHAM - The city and the Port of Bellingham have announced a potential blockbuster real estate swap on the waterfront, a deal that is being touted as a way to speed up both industrial and park development.

No money would change hands as a part of the deal, and nothing is certain until both the Port Commission and the City Council hold public meetings and vote their approval.

Port commissioners and council members have been kept informed on the properties involved during closed-door sessions that state law allows when real estate deals are being discussed. But they have yet to be briefed on all of the details.

According to tentative terms announced Wednesday, Oct. 3, the port will receive city-owned industrial land now being used by the Landings at Colony Wharf, on the northwest side of Whatcom Waterway.

The city, in turn, would take sole ownership of the Cornwall Beach area. That is an old city landfill site that has been 51 percent port-owned and is now undergoing some environmental cleanup.

Mayor Kelli Linville and the port's interim executive director, Rob Fix, said the deal would enable both the port and the city to do what they do best. The port would get marine industrial property from the city, while the city will get land that is mostly envisioned as park and open space.

The Colony Wharf boatyard operates partly on port land and partly on city land. Linville said it never made sense for the city to have an industrial tenant.

"That's really not our mission," she said. "That's the port's mission."

Fix said consolidation of the site under port ownership would enable more efficient use by private tenants, and that could create new jobs.

Also as part of this deal, the city would gain access to the big breakwater that surrounds the old Georgia-Pacific Corp. wastewater lagoon, for installation of a pedestrian walkway. Port officials had envisioned something similar as part of their plan for a new marina inside the lagoon, but the marina proposal is now on indefinite hold.

Linville said a breakwater walkway was too enticing to wait on a marina project.

"We thought it would be a great earlier-rather-than-later access point for the citizens to walk," she said. "It's great access."

The port has also agreed to allow the city to provide parking for the walkway on adjacent port-owned land.

Linville said she expects to work with the city's parks and Greenways advisory boards on plans for the walkway.

The breakwater was built with an access road on top and is already walkable, although it is not open to the public. Linville said preliminary estimates indicate the city could install a barrier to keep people out of the lagoon for less than $500,000. The port would retain ownership of the breakwater and lagoon.

With or without the marina, the lagoon is targeted for eventual environmental cleanup of decades' worth of industrial wastes from pulp mill operations.

Fix and Linville said the simplification of waterfront ownership should help to simplify progress toward developing final cleanup plans for other waterfront sites.

The idea of a port-city land swap is nothing new. Port commissioners and former Mayor Dan Pike acknowledged they were trying to make some kind of deal in 2009, although at that time the port-owned Granary was envisioned as part of the deal.

At this point, the Granary is off the table, and the port expects to seek redevelopment proposals for it by the end of November 2012.

Both the Colony Wharf site and the Cornwall landfill site were part of the deal that the port and city were discussing three years ago.

Linville said most of the Cornwall site is still envisioned as park land, but some portion could also be available for development.

A waterfront master plan is in its final stage of development and will be unveiled before the end of the year, port and city officials said Wednesday. But they have been saying that for years.


PUBLIC MEETINGS

• Port commissioners will review the land swap at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16, in the Harbor Center Conference Room at port offices on Roeder Avenue.

• City Council will take up the matter at 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 22, in council chambers at City Hall.

READ THE REPORT

For the City of Bellingham's statement on the deal, including a draft of the proposed agreement and maps of the sites, go to this cob.org webpage.

Reach JOHN STARK at 715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com . Read the Politics Blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics.

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