Waterfront's impact on downtown Bellingham could be issue

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 12, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - The negative impacts of a booming waterfront on downtown businesses is emerging as a concern as waterfront redevelopment plans get public scrutiny.

At a Thursday, May 9, session of the Bellingham Planning Commission, some commissioners said waterfront businesspeople have expressed fears about how a revitalized waterfront would affect them.

"They are in fact worried that the city is turning a shoulder to downtown in favor of this new, glitzy project," said Planning Commission Chairman Tom Grinstad, an architect.

While the first phase of waterfront redevelopment is planned to occur in the Granary area next to the existing downtown, Grinstad noted that creating a good connection between that area and downtown will mean overcoming some geography.

"I think we all have to recognize that there are two barriers - one natural, one human-made," Grinstad said, referring to the bluff and the BNSF Railway Co. tracks that now separate downtown from the waterfront.

The issue of a waterfront that could develop at downtown's expense has been simmering for years. Former mayor Dan Pike and his staff struggled with Port of Bellingham officials on this issue after Pike took office in late 2007, about three years after the port took over ownership of the Georgia-Pacific Corp. pulp and paper mill site that occupied the waterfront for decades.

The current development plan now facing the city's planning commission reflects some changes that resulted from those port-city struggles - although Pike himself went public with a critique of the latest version of the development plan earlier this year. Among other things, the current plan focuses the first stage of waterfront development at the northern end of the site, next to downtown, instead of farther south in the Laurel Street area.

Planning Commission member Danne Neill, a real estate agent, said she, too, had heard some discontent among downtown businesspeople, and she saw a real risk that new high-rise development in the area could cut downtown off from Bellingham Bay.

She said port and city officials should do their best to keep downtown businesspeople well-informed about the waterfront project.

"I don't think anybody consciously wants to put downtown out of business," Neill said.

City planning officials hastened to reassure her and the rest of the commission.

Planning Director Jeff Thomas said he and his staff remain hard at work on finding ways to help improve the business climate downtown.

"Downtown is not forgotten," Thomas said. "We're working very hard on that."

"We're trying to remove as many barriers as we can to downtown growth," added Greg Aucutt, a senior city planner.

Tara Sundin, the city's economic development manager, agreed.

"I think it (downtown) is probably the area that the city invests the most in," Sundin said. "We are not stopping our investment."

Other planning commissioners said they thought that the current waterfront development plan would be a boon to downtown. Phyllis McKee, a prominent Fairhaven property owner, said the waterfront plan's goal is a seamless connection to downtown.

"I think Bellingham is going to grow," McKee said. "This (waterfront) is going to attract new (growth) and I'm excited about that. ... I see them growing together, the same with Fairhaven. I don't see this as a negative for other areas of Bellingham."

Commissioner Ali Taysi, a development consultant, noted that the area proposed for mixed-use commercial development is comparatively small, and is likely to be developed gradually.

"It's a plan for 20 years," Taysi said. "It's not going to spring up overnight down there. ... To me it doesn't seem like something that is going to overtake the existing core."

Downtown developer Bob Hall, who owns The Herald Building and a number of other downtown properties, said in a later interview that waterfront development would be preferable to continued growth in the Cordata and Barkley areas, which he says have grown at downtown's expense.

"I think whatever they put down there is going to be a boon to downtown," Hall said.

Cordata and Barkley developments have an edge on downtown because they can offer acres of parking lots that are far cheaper for developers than the parking garages that a major new downtown development would need, Hall said.

He argued that it is past time for the city to invest its parking revenues from meters and tickets into building such a structure, to make downtown more competitive with outlying areas.

The Planning Commission is in the midst of a lengthy review of massive waterfront planning documents. Once that review is complete, the commission will make recommendations to the City Council, which has the power to give those documents the force of law.

So far the commission has held seven meetings to review the plans, and appears likely to hold several more. The next waterfront discussion session is now scheduled for Thursday, May 16.

At this point, there is little evidence that commissioners see major problems with the plans before them.

"I think this is an excellent starting point," McKee said.

Commissioners have made it clear that they like the plan's emphasis on retaining and, if possible, increasing the number of industrial jobs on the waterfront to provide good wages. But they seem unanimously opposed to any kind of living-wage mandate for the waterfront.

The recently formed BlueGreen Coalition of labor unions and environmental activists has endorsed just such a mandate for the waterfront.

"We support a requirement for living-wage jobs with affordable health care and a preference for hiring local residents," the coalition recently proclaimed.

Nobody on the planning commission seems to favor a wage mandate.

"It's just not appropriate at all to try to do that," commissioner Garrett O'Brien said, adding that he wants to encourage, but not mandate, the growth of living-wage jobs.

McKee said a waterfront wage mandate would more likely discourage job-generating development.

"To impose artificial requirements would make it very, very difficult," McKee said.

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

GO TO A MEETING

What: Bellingham Planning Commission takes up waterfront plans again.

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, May 16.

Where: Council chambers at City Hall, 210 Lottie St.

Reach JOHN STARK at john.stark@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2274.

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