Bellingham waterfront developers could be chosen soon

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 8, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - The next big step toward waterfront redevelopment will be the selection of developers ready to take on major new building projects.

Although zoning and development regulations for the waterfront are finally in place after years of wrangling, it will be years before new buildings are shovel-ready. But Port of Bellingham Executive Director Rob Fix said he expects to recommend a private development team to port commissioners before the end of the first quarter of 2014.

Selection of that team will be a tentative first step that starts the process of negotiating a deal with that team - a process not guaranteed to be successful. Among other things, the port and the developers will have to agree on financial terms that make money for the developer while also providing an adequate level of return on the millions of dollars of public investment in the 237 waterfront acres. That area extends 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.

In any event, the entire 237 acres won't be developed at the same time. The first phase of development will be limited to an 11-acre tract south of Roeder Avenue, in and around the Granary Building.

The port has three development proposals from groups vying for the role of master developer.

-- Harcourt Developments Limited has handled a variety of large-scale waterfront developments, including the Titanic Quarter in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Formerly a shipyard, the first phase of the 300-acre project is complete and has added 475 residential units, a college campus, offices and a 122-room hotel. Future phases will include four more hotels and a financial services center.

-- Williams/Dame & Associates, which is partnering with Loci Inc., has worked on a variety of projects in Portland, Ore., including redeveloping portions of the Pearl District and the South Waterfront District. Williams/Dame is also redeveloping the South Park area of Los Angeles, putting in several LEED-certified condominiums totaling more than 700 units.

-- Uniting Creatives/Four Pillars, a team of local activists and visionaries joining forces with The Perfume Foundation.

Western Washington University also expects to play a role in the first development phase.

"Western is certainly committed to having a flag on the waterfront," said Steve Swan, WWU's vice president of university relations. "We want to be a part of that initial (11) acres."

As a first phase, WWU envisions a community learning center that could involve participation of other local institutions of higher learning, operating in a space that would be leased from a developer. The university also has broad plans for later-stage development of a six-acre site farther south that is now zoned for institutional use.

In addition to the master development proposals, three other groups have submitted proposals for rehabilitation of the Granary and could undertake those proposals in cooperation with a master developer. There is also a hotel proposal from a private firm, and a lower-cost housing proposal from the Bellingham/Whatcom County Housing Authorities.

The port will not necessarily pick one developer and send the others home. Once a master developer is chosen, that developer could work in tandem with other interested development groups, if that makes sense, Fix said.

Fix stressed that the port is not evaluating the development proposals in a vacuum. Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville, Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws, and Western Washington University officials also have reviewed development proposals and have been involved in the interview process.

How long until new buildings break ground?

"I think five years is realistic," Fix said. "It needs to be done right, and the market will determine when 'right' is."

While a lot of public attention has been focused on the northern portion of the site envisioned as a mix of residential, retail and office buildings, the port is also on the lookout for new industrial tenants for the acreage close to the shipping terminal at the end of Cornwall Avenue.

"That's where the living-wage jobs will come from," Fix 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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