Port, city of Bellingham face a bit more wrangling on waterfront

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 1, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - Port of Bellingham commissioners say they remain optimistic about reaching final agreement with the city on waterfront development plans, but a few sticking points remain.

Two of the biggest remaining potential conflicts:

• The route of a waterfront trail in and around the industrial area near the port's Bellingham Shipping Terminal.

• Whether to stipulate that 10 percent of new housing on the waterfront must be lower-cost.

Compared to the major city-port conflicts in past years over bigger issues like street design, density and pace of development, the remaining issues seem minor.

At a Tuesday, Oct. 1, port commission meeting, Port Environmental Director Mike Stoner outlined changes to waterfront redevelopment plans that have been recommended by the City Council's waterfront committee: Terry Bornemann, Cathy Lehman and Jack Weiss.

The committee made its recommendations after close to 20 hours' review of proposed plans for rezoning and redevelopment of 237 mostly empty waterfront acres, including port-owned property formerly owned by Georgia-Pacific Corp. The full seven-member council will take up the waterfront plans in the weeks ahead.

The plan's first draft called for a waterfront trail that would link the Whatcom Waterway area with a park planned for the southern end of Cornwall Avenue. The draft indicated that this trail could be shifted away from the water's edge if the route closer to the water would get in the way of industrial access to the port's shipping terminal.

But the City Council committee recommended stronger language mandating the waterfront trail on a route that would cut through the port's industrial property and block a portion of that property from access to the shipping terminal.

The three port commissioners agreed they would try to talk the full City Council out of that.

"This is our only public terminal in the county," Commissioner Mike McAuley said. "The shipping terminal takes precedence over the trail at that location."

Commissioner Jim Jorgensen said more attractive landscaping could be added to the trail route if it needs to be routed closer to Cornwall Avenue to accommodate industrial activity.

Commissioner Scott Walker said trail advocates need to recognize that the route will be going through an urban, industrial area no matter the route.

"It's never going to look like walking through the Chuckanut Mountains," Walker said.

Commissioners appeared more willing to discuss the lower-cost housing requirement with city officials, but they had some reservations.

The original draft of waterfront plans called for a "goal" of 10 percent lower-cost housing, Stoner said, but the City Council committee recommended changing that to a requirement.

McAuley said the requirement sounded OK to him, but Walker asked port staff to find out if any other area of the city is subject to such a requirement. Both Walker and Jorgensen expressed concern that such a requirement might deter some developers.

City Economic Development Manager Tara Sundin told commissioners she wasn't sure if a similar requirement exists in any other area. She said the city commonly provides developers with incentives to include lower-cost housing in their plans: Developers can be allowed to build more housing units in some areas if they include more affordable homes or apartments in the mix.

Stoner said he would talk to city officials about using incentives, rather than mandates, to generate lower-cost housing development on the waterfront.

Overall, commissioners said they were pleased with the progress toward eventual port-city agreement on the waterfront.

"We're certainly going in the right direction," Jorgensen said.

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

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