Key property drops out of Bellingham Public Development Authority project

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 7, 2014 

BELLINGHAM - The owners of what could be the anchor property for an ambitious private-public building project on the edge of downtown have withdrawn from the process.

The Thornberg Trust withdrew from the Bellingham Public Development Authority's Army Street Project in mid-June, in part because the trust did not want to disclose proprietary information, and in part because the project does not seem likely to succeed, said Jack L. Curnow, a representative for the trust.

"We just don't think the thing is going to happen," Curnow said.

The project encompasses 2.5 acres of property owned by private landowners and the city. The proposed site is bounded by West Holly Street, Bay Street, Central Avenue and West Chestnut.

Starting in 2012, the development authority worked on forming an agreement among the owners of small pieces of property in that parcel with the idea of planning for a larger development that could, if desired, include apartments, office space, shops, public plazas and a hotel.

A concept development plan from September 2013 shows a hotel - an anchor-piece and draw - on the property along Bay Street that is owned by the Thornberg Trust.

The trust and five other private landowners entered into a non-binding agreement with the city in January. The idea behind the unique partnership is that each parcel on its own is not worth much, but together they could provide space that would be enticing to a private developer, said Jim Long, authority executive director. A few of the sites are undeveloped, while others have buildings in need of repair or remodeling.

With the trust's withdrawal, each involved landowner, including the city, was given 30 days to decide whether or not to continue with the due diligence process that was started in February, Long said.

The process is being funded with a portion of the $550,000 City Council delegated to the authority for the year. The money, which also covers the administrative costs of running the authority, was pulled from funds that otherwise could have been used for street maintenance.

So far the authority has contracted for and completed work on a survey, an environmental study, and geotechnical and archaeological reports for the site, Long said. By September or October the process will wrap up with economic and market research that should give each party an idea of what would be feasible in that block, Long said.

Though the trust's land was imagined as the site of a hotel in the concept plan, it would be easy to envision a hotel on the adjacent site, Long said.

"We could move the hotel to a more compact site," Long said. "Losing a periphery site may or may not be fatal; losing an interior site would be worse."

Long will address the trust's withdrawal at a council committee meeting scheduled to start at 3:20 p.m. Monday, July 7, in council chambers at 210 Lottie St.

Mayor Kelli Linville is not a fan of the development authority and said she feels there are better options for development in that area.

"A lot of money has gone into the conceptual design," Linville said. "If the city takes its property back, which is what I want, doing smaller projects over time based on population and fiscal status would be a better way to go."

A few properties within the envisioned site have not joined in the agreement. Those sites, and Thornberg Trust, still could join in the project once the due diligence process is complete, Long said.

On the flip side, if the city or other owners were to decide the project is not feasible, Long said the city likely could at least recoup the $550,000 it has invested by selling its parcel, along with a parcel it has an option on.

SEE THE MAP

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

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at Samantha.Wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com.

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