Bellingham development authority boss seeks $1.3M for Old Town project

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 16, 2013 

Granary Walk

The Granary Building on Bellingham's waterfront, built in 1928 as the focal point of a once-booming egg and poultry business in Whatcom County, is just one of many sites being considered for redevelopment by the Port of Bellingham.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

BELLINGHAM - Public Development Authority Executive Director Jim Long says he is confident that he can meet the goals set for his agency by City Council, and that should keep the authority in business in 2014.

At a Tuesday, Oct. 15, meeting, Long told his board that he expects to have an agreement with six Old Town property owners by the council's Nov. 15, 2013, deadline. Combined with some city-owned property along Holly Street, the deal is meant to assemble a 2.5-acre site that could be offered to a private developer. In Long's vision, the eventual development will provide a crucial link between downtown and the redeveloping waterfront property owned by the Port of Bellingham.

In December 2012, City Council approved continued 2013 funding for the development authority on a 4-3 vote. At that time, council members told Long he would need to show real progress on the Old Town development project in order to convince them to keep the authority afloat in 2014. In May 2013, the council approved a specific set of goals for Long, including the Nov. 15 deadline for the agreement with the owners of other properties in and around a small city-owned lot and right of way on Holly Street.

It has been dubbed the "Army Street Project," because it includes right of way for the never-built street of that name.

Long says the combined properties could accommodate an 800-space parking garage below ground level, with a hotel, residences, commercial and office space arranged around a pedestrian plaza that would provide a walkway to the port property around the Granary building. The port is already in the process of discussing the 10.8-acre Granary area with prospective developers, as City Council enters the final stages of approving planning and zoning for the entire 237-acre waterfront district.

Long also acknowledges that the agreement with property owners - even if it gets final approval from both the owners and City Council - will be a first step in a long and costly process of determining whether the project he envisions can attract as much as $100 million in private investment capital.

To that end, Long wants the City Council to authorize him to spend up to $1.3 million to cover the costs of due diligence and a feasibility study. As Long sees it, the city has most of that money already available, from the unspent $1.2 million proceeds from the 2011 sale of a city-owned lot at 1100 Cornwall Ave. The city used parking funds to buy the property as a possible site for new downtown parking, and the sale money is now back in the parking fund.

Using the money for the development authority project makes sense, because among other things it will create a lot of new parking spaces in a better location than 1100 Cornwall, Long said.

At the same time, both the small private lots and the city's own real estate are worth little by themselves, but the emerging combination creates a valuable parcel in a critical location.

"This money is not burned," Long said. "It's invested in a capital project with a return."

Authority board members said they hoped City Council could be convinced that the project is worth the risk.

Board member Chris Webb said he thought Long's proposal is the best way to link downtown and the waterfront.

"What is the do-nothing alternative?" Webb said. "We're going to build our waterfront around a vacant hole?"

Outside the development authority, not everyone is impressed. Count private downtown developer Bob Hall among the skeptics. He thinks the city could find better ways to spend its parking revenue.

"It's a wonderful idea, but it's just drawings on a paper now," Hall said in a recent interview. "They need some upfront investors with millions of dollars, and they're not around. ... I don't feel that it's real, and I'm furious about all the quarters from all the meters going into it."

SEE THE MAP

For more information and a map of the proposed Army Street Project, go to this bellinghampda.org webpage.

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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