BELLINGHAM - On a 2-1 vote, Port of Bellingham commissioners have approved a complex real estate transaction aimed at providing Western Washington University with a six-acre chunk of waterfront property for future development.
As a part of the agreement approved Tuesday, June 18, WWU would sell 24 acres of land it owns at the corner of Hannegan and Bakerview roads to raise cash to compensate the port for the property. WWU trustees gave the agreement unanimous approval Friday, June 14.
Commissioner Mike McAuley voted no. McAuley said he felt uncomfortable tying up the port's six acres without any solid idea of what the university would do with it.
"I've never been a fan of seeing WWU on the waterfront because I think their plan is weak," McAuley said. "They don't have a plan."
In a later interview, WWU Vice President for University Relations Steve Swan said university officials have some definite ideas about the kind of programs that could be installed on the waterfront.
As Swan explained it, the development of the six-acre site along the Laurel Street right of way would occur at a later stage. The first step in bringing WWU to the waterfront would occur in the 10.8-acre Granary area that is slated for early-stage development.
Swan said the university hopes to install a community learning center inside leased space in a building provided by a private developer. Whatcom Community College, Northwest Indian College and Bellingham Technical College also could be involved in that center, Swan said.
According to a university white paper from 2010 that Swan provided, the learning center would provide a convenient location for a wide array of educational opportunities for people of all ages, from degree completion programs to specialized conferences.
"We want to create a melting-pot type of facility," Swan said.
In future years, as development spreads south from the Granary area, WWU would develop the six-acre Laurel Street site that will be zoned for institutional use under the land use plans now getting scrutiny at City Hall.
Among other things, the white paper suggests that Huxley College of the Environment and the College of Business and Economics could be located there, as part of an institute focused on "The Green Economy."
Swan said that program also could operate in leased space, if state capital funds for construction of university buildings are not available.
"We're really excited about having the opportunity to build on the waterfront," Swan said. "We know it's good for Western and will be really good for our community."
Also at Tuesday's meeting, commissioners Scott Walker and Jim Jorgensen noted that having WWU facilities as part of a redeveloped Bellingham waterfront has been part of the vision since 2005, when the port acquired much of the waterfront industrial area from Georgia-Pacific Corp. after that company phased out its pulp and paper operations.
Port Executive Director Rob Fix said WWU would serve as an anchor tenant to encourage developers to invest. Universities have played that role in many other cities, he added.
There's no simple way to describe the real estate transaction, which is in a tentative "memorandum of understanding" form rather than a binding transaction at this point.
For the first time, the agreement creates a meaningful role for Western Crossing Development, a nonprofit entity directed by a five-member board consisting of Fix and Walker, WWU President Bruce Shepard, WWU trustee Peggy Zoro, and retired refinery manager Glenn Butler. Western Crossing has been in existence since 2009.
The memorandum calls for WWU to transfer its 24-acre Hannegan Road property to Western Crossing and then sell it. Fix said WWU has a $4.1 million appraisal for the land, of which only nine acres are developable because of wetlands and slope issues.
The port also would transfer the six-acre waterfront parcel to Western Crossing. The six acres also includes the old red brick G-P board mill building, which could be converted to new uses.
At some point, Fix said, a fair value for that six-acre waterfront site would be determined, and the money from the Hannegan sale would be available to pay the port.
The memorandum gives WWU until Dec. 31, 2015, to complete a development plan for the six-acre site.
According to Whatcom County Assessor online records, WWU purchased the Hannegan Road property in 1989 for $649,000.
University spokesman Paul Cocke said Huxley College of the Environment faculty have used the property and its storage building on the site in support of research. The Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association also has leased a portion of the site.
READ ABOUT WWU'S WATERFRONT PLANS
Click here to read a copy (PDF) of a 2010 white paper about Western Washington University's plans for developing a facility on Bellingham's waterfront.