Bellingham, port near final approval of waterfront plans

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 1, 2013 

aerials

The Georgia-Pacific Corp. pulp and tissue mill site, pictured in this aerial photo made in June, 2010, is part of 237 waterfront acres that are being planned for long-term redevelopment.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

BELLINGHAM - After years of public discussion, City Council and the Port of Bellingham Commission appear ready to approve plans that will shape redevelopment of the city's dormant industrial waterfront in the decades ahead.

The waterfront plans are on the City Council agenda for 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 2, in council chambers at City Hall, 210 Lottie St. The port commission will consider the matter at the regular 3 p.m. Tuesday meeting in the Harbor Center meeting room, 1801 Roeder Ave.

The City Council also has set aside four hours, from 1 to 5 p.m. Monday, for committee discussion of some final changes to plan language and other related matters.

The plans affect 237 waterfront acres that extend around the bay from the I&J Waterway next to the Bellwether development, all the way to a large, new park site on a former city dump off the southern end of Cornwall Avenue. They include the Port of Bellingham property formerly owned by Georgia-Pacific Corp.

Some environmental activists continue to argue that strategies for environmental cleanup are not thorough enough, and that the plans for new parks and buildings don't sufficiently consider the needs of wildlife. While no public hearing is scheduled, critics are expected to make one more showing during the opening public comment period at the meetings.

The vote on City Council may not be unanimous. Jack Weiss has expressed dissatisfaction with the plans, though he has also succeeded in getting his colleagues to approve some changes to address his concerns. Among other things, the council has agreed to direct city staff to conduct a habitat assessment to provide information on how waterfront developments could affect fish, birds and marine mammals.

On Nov. 7, after a series of lengthy committee discussions, the council voted 6-0 to move the waterfront plans forward for a formal vote, with Cathy Lehman absent. At that time, Weiss said he was not sure whether his final vote would be aye or nay. But he also said he thought the council's review process had been thorough.

Port commissioners appear likely to give the plans unanimous approval. Commissioners Jim Jorgensen and Scott Walker have made it clear they are eager to complete the planning phase and get on with actual redevelopment. Mike McAuley, who enjoys the best relations with environmentalists, has indicated that he is less than impressed with the objections being raised to the plans.

If the plans do get final approval, it will wrap up a process that began even before the Port of Bellingham took over G-P's old pulp mill site in 2005.

The waterfront plans now before the city and port can trace their ancestry to the plans developed by a citizen panel, the Waterfront Futures Group, that called for a variety of new waterfront land uses, including ample parks and public access, and new residences, offices and commercial buildings.

Since then, port and city officials have offered a variety of plans and proposals for the waterfront, and public opinion has played an important role in shaping and changing those plans.

The two biggest changes: A reversion to more industrial uses on the waterfront, and a shift in the first phase of development to the northern end of the site around the Granary Building.

In the years immediately following the transfer of land ownership from G-P to the port, the real estate market was still booming, and planners thought much of the old pulp mill site should be used for residential, commercial and office buildings. But after the bust, city and port planners agreed that it would be better to set aside more acreage for waterfront industrial jobs in the area around the port's deep-water shipping terminal.

Also in the early years, port and city officials envisioned an early stage of development near the old mill entrance at Cornwall Avenue and Laurel Street, complete with a dramatic new bridge over the railroad tracks to link that area to State Street and Western Washington University, which had plans for new facilities in the area.

But later study indicated the cost of such a bridge would be prohibitive. Then, in late 2007, Dan Pike took over as mayor. Pike argued that putting the first phase of waterfront redevelopment all the way down at Laurel Street would be harmful to downtown.

Relations between port officials and the city were often acrimonious during Pike's four years as mayor, but Pike's view prevailed on that key point. Port officials are now considering first-phase development proposals for the Granary area at the edge of downtown, and the Public Development Authority that Pike created is still working on its own redevelopment project on adjacent real estate along West Holly Street.

Kelli Linville, who defeated Pike's 2011 reelection bid, repaired relations with port officials and got the planning process back on track. In a press release, Linville said the completion of the planning work sets the stage for progress.

"The agreement represents a partnership with the Port, an incredible effort by our staff, and review by our elected officials that will benefit those who live, work, visit and invest in our community," Linville said.

Port Executive Director Rob Fix agreed.

"This project will connect Downtown Bellingham with its waterfront and will create essential new jobs and economic opportunities," Fix said.

Reach JOHN STARK at john.stark@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2274.

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