Where are we with the Bellingham waterfront?
In 2007, I ran for mayor in large part because I recognized the opportunities and challenges of redeveloping Bellingham's waterfront. Speaking with thousands of residents, I knew that the community wanted to reconnect our city to its historic roots, while continuing the path of building a Bellingham with a parks system second to none.
On election, I entered into discussions with the Port of Bellingham to move the project forward. The Port's vision differed significantly from the community vision I'd heard. Whereas the community wanted growth complementing downtown, and preservation of historic buildings on the site, the Port favored demolition of existing buildings, and a commitment to build six million square feet of new buildings within 20 years - with the city paying for the infrastructure. For reference, it's taken Bellingham 150 years to develop 1.5 million square feet downtown. Development on the scale the Port has proposed would severely damage existing downtown businesses.
I worked with city staff develop a plan more aligned with that held by Bellingham citizens. We made progress. City and Port agreed to retain most of the existing buildings unless a viable, better - and funded - opportunity presented itself. Port Executive Director Charlie Sheldon and I discussed repurposing the aerated stabilization basin - essentially the Georgia-Pacific water treatment facility - to address the city's need for a large sewer overflow facility, and to provide a better option for addressing cost-effective biologic oxygen demand treatment to help Bellingham Cold Storage and other food processors not only retain current customers - and jobs - but perhaps even to expand their operations. Sheldon was excited about the opportunity, but ran into stiff resistance at the Port, where commissioners remained committed to a large marina. He told me raising the idea put his job in jeopardy.
Fast forward, and the city and Port of Bellingham are proposing a master plan for the waterfront. The plan advocates more for the Port than the community. The scale of the proposed development remains too large, threatening the viability of a downtown that is beginning to thrive. Keeping the idea of a marina that doesn't pencil out - and will never makes financial sense - keeps the city and Port from moving on to productive uses of the ASB water treatment facility. Continually focusing on demolishing buildings rather than adapting them for new uses ignores a community commitment to sustainability - and real financial savings, too.
Recently the city gave up Colony Wharf - which generates positive cash flow - in exchange for a contaminated site. The city had long requested that swap include the area around the Granary, to utilize the considerable expertise of the Public Development Authority Board and executive director. The Port has maintained the Granary has no value; for Bellingham, the area is critical in connecting the waterfront redevelopment with downtown and Old Town. Let the Port manage the area aligned with its mission - Colony Wharf - and the city that area critical to its success, the Granary area.
A better Bellingham relies on the right redevelopment of our waterfront. The Port's Clean Ocean Marina idea should be scrapped now. Opportunities to use the ASB water treatment facility for a more effective cleanup, to save the city millions in building a combined sewer overflow facility, and to use the infrastructure for jobs retention and development are lost as long as the fiction of building a marina remains. The city and Port should commit to moving proactively to preserve the heritage and opportunity presented by the legacy waterfront buildings. There is insufficient commitment to saving buildings which could add value to the site, not only today, but 100 years from now. And city and Port need to commit to a robust parks presence. Where the new draft calls for the public to give up some parks in the log pond area, the draft needs to specify what lands will be developed as parks in exchange.
This is a critically important community conversation. The city and Port have committed to listening in the public process to citizen ideas and desires. Please join me in sharing your thoughts as the process moves forward. The Planning Commission takes up consideration of the waterfront draft master plan on March 21, but comments may be submitted at any time.
Dan Pike, a Huxley College of the Environment alumnus and Bellingham mayor from 2008 to 2011, spoke about the waterfront plan Feb. 7 as part of Western Washington University's Huxley College of the Environment Speaker Series. Pike is the president of Sustainable Solutions, a consulting firm that helps firms with strategic, transportation and management planning and assistance. Pike graduated from Western with a bachelor's degree in 1994 and from Harvard University with a master's degree in Public Administration in 1998.