BELLINGHAM - On a 6-0 vote, City Council has given preliminary approval to a master plan meant to guide decades of redevelopment on 237 waterfront acres.
The affected land stretches around the bay from the I&J Waterway next to the Bellwether development, all the way to a large new park site at the southern end of Cornwall Avenue. It includes the Port of Bellingham property formerly owned by Georgia-Pacific Corp.
The master plan still faces a final formal council vote at an upcoming Monday evening council session, after it has been drawn up in the form of an ordinance. Port of Bellingham commissioners also will need to approve the plan.
The city and port are joining forces on the massive undertaking, with the port handling extensive environmental cleanup work while the city constructs streets and public utilities. Some of the property will be zoned for a mixed new neighborhood of shops, offices and residences, while areas near the port's shipping terminal and planned new marina are earmarked for industrial activity.
With Cathy Lehman excused for vacation, the council took its vote Thursday, Nov. 7, after many hours of scrutiny by the full council and before that, the council's three-member waterfront committee.
"I'm thrilled," Mayor Kelli Linville said. "This is an enormous step forward that has been in the making for four years, long before I became mayor."
She singled out City Economic Development Manager Tara Sundin for her work with port officials and other city staffers to guide the complex development plans through the process.
The biggest unknown is the pace of change: How quickly will private interests step forward to invest millions in the area?
Port Executive Director Rob Fix told the City Council that he and his staff are talking to four prospective development groups that have expressed interest in the 10.7-acre area in and around the Granary Building.
Fix said the port will select a master developer for that area, and the master developer will then start discussions with other developers who have expressed interest in finding new life for the Granary.
At a Tuesday, Nov. 5, port commission meeting, Commissioner Mike McAuley argued that the port should select a Granary redeveloper and get that process started first, but commissioners Jim Jorgensen and Scott Walker preferred to follow Fix's recommendation and select a master developer first.
McAuley said he didn't want the master developer to decide the Granary's fate, but Fix attempted to reassure him that nothing would happen to the Granary without review by the port commission.
Fix also acknowledged that some of the master developers who have expressed interest in the site would prefer to demolish the Granary, but he said they are willing to consider other options.
Once the planning documents' approval is final, Fix said the port and developers can get serious about putting together a deal.
Jack Weiss, the City Council's sharpest critic of the plan, said he remained dissatisfied with many of its aspects and was not sure he would vote for approval when the council takes its final vote. But he said he thought the council's review process had been adequate.
Council member Gene Knutson praised Weiss for his challenges to many details of the plan during the council's review sessions.
"You have brought the level of discussion way up," Knutson told Weiss.