Bellingham waterfront plans head to City Council

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 4, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - After years of public discussion and sometimes-testy negotiations between city and Port of Bellingham officials, waterfront redevelopment plans are headed to City Council for final approval.

But that approval process is likely to take months.

The council has scheduled a public hearing on the plans near the start of the 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 5, meeting in council chambers at City Hall, 210 Lottie St. The hearing is just the first step in the approval process: After the hearing, council members are expected to refer the waterfront plans to a council committee for additional discussion and study.

Both port and city staffers have expressed hope that the council and Port Commission will approve final plans before the end of 2013.

The plans are a regulatory framework for development of 237 mostly empty waterfront acres. More than half of that acreage was formerly owned by Georgia-Pacific Corp., which handed its real estate over to the port in 2005 as the company phased out tissue production here.

The city's Planning Commission unanimously endorsed the plans earlier this year, while recommending a few changes, after lengthy discussions spread over 10 meetings, including several public hearings.

Among other things, the plans will change the existing heavy industrial zoning over much of the property to allow construction of residential buildings and commercial offices. Some real estate still will be set aside for marine industrial uses. Plans also call for 33 acres of new parks, six acres of public beach, and waterfront trails along much of the area.

"There's room for parks. There's room for jobs. There's a lot of room," port environmental analyst Mike Hogan told participants during an Aug. 1 walking tour of the old G-P site.

Port officials are already in preliminary discussions with potential developers interested in a 10.8-acre parcel at the northeast end of the site, in and around the Granary Building along Whatcom Waterway. Port spokeswoman Carolyn Casey told participants that developers can provide valuable input into the new waterfront plan before it emerges in final form.

Those who walked the site on Aug. 1 said the experience impressed them with the sheer size of the property and all the things that could be done with it.

"I was born and raised here," said Leslie Grace. "This is the first time I've ever been in this area. It's definitely exciting."

More than 200 people have participated in site tours led by port and city officials during the last two weeks, Casey said.

During those tours, officials stress that the pace of development will be slow, for several reasons:

-- Extensive environmental cleanup of mercury and other toxic leftovers from the pulp and paper mill will take years to complete. The city has its own cleanup headaches on the old R.G. Haley wood treatment site south of the main G-P site.

-- The city can't afford the financial burden of installing streets and utilities over the entire site before it is developed. The plan is to extend those public services gradually.

-- The city's real estate market needs a limited amount of new residential and commercial space per year, and building too much too soon might threaten existing development in downtown, Fairhaven and elsewhere.

At the same time, city officials say they are determined to provide some public access points to the waterfront as soon as possible. The first such access is likely to be a temporary public walkway on the mile-long breakwater around G-P's wastewater lagoon along Whatcom Waterway.

The lagoon itself may emerge as a sticking point as City Council members get their first crack at waterfront plans.

Even before G-P shut down its operations, port officials envisioned the lagoon as a possible site for more moorage space. Environmental restrictions would make construction of new breakwaters next to impossible, and there is a waiting list for moorage in the port's existing marinas at Squalicum Harbor and Blaine. Adding another 300 boats in the local harbor would provide more work for the craftsmen and the companies that serve those boats.

But there have always been skeptics who argue that the lagoon would be of greater public benefit as a stormwater treatment lagoon. Others have suggested filling it in completely to create a big new waterfront park.

Even if the marina remains in the final plans approved by City Council, it could be a long time coming. Port officials have no longer committed themselves to a specific date for building it, partly because it is no longer clear that the cost of cleaning out the lagoon could be covered by moorage charges at rates boaters would be willing to pay.

When port and city officials gathered on the waterfront in 2005 for the ceremonial transfer of property from G-P to public ownership, the real estate market was booming and people seemed excited about what would happen next. They packed early-stage public meetings to discuss what should be done with the property.

But over the next few years, the real estate bust, the port-city squabbles and the extensive public costs involved in waterfront redevelopment brought progress and public enthusiasm to a near-standstill.

After last week's tours, participants said they are still wondering if meaningful results are finally getting close.

"Will it be two years before you see anything at all?" local resident Dawn Hatch asked. "Will it be five years?"

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

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