Piece by piece and day by day this fall, demolition crews have revealed several steel giants that have long stood on the city’s former industrial waterfront behind brick walls.
They’re digester tanks that were once used in the Georgia-Pacific Corp. pulp and tissue mill to turn wood chips into pulp, using acid and steam.
The 65-foot-tall behemoths, 18 feet in diameter at their widest point, are made from 1.3-inch-thick steel, joined together with large round rivets.
“They’re almost like secret sculpture pieces that were hidden down there, invisible to the community,” said John Reid, the architect working with Irish-developer Harcourt Developments on the first steps to renew the site.
Earlier this year, the Port of Bellingham had announced it would hold onto the three oldest tanks for potential use during the redevelopment, but Reid and Harcourt didn’t think that would be enough.
These kind of sculptural rockets have great potential to celebrate this former industrial past.
John Reid, architect
“Harcourt Developments and myself are keen to retain those,” Reid said.
Through talks with Port Executive Director Rob Fix, Reid and Harcourt got their wish: The six oldest tanks were left standing rather than being scrapped for their steel.
Reid said he thinks the tanks could be used throughout parks and avenues on the waterfront to pay homage to the site’s history.
“These kind of sculptural rockets have great potential to celebrate this former industrial past,” Reid said. “I think there’s opportunity for color, for water, for illumination.”
Bellingham’s Gas Works Park?
The site has the potential to parallel the mix of old industrial use and new park space seen in Seattle’s Gas Works Park, Reid said.
Gas Works Park sits on 20 acres on Lake Union that were formerly home to a plant that manufactured gas from coal and crude oil, according to Seattle’s parks department.
After natural gas put the plant out of business, the city bought the site in the ’60s, and in 1975 it was opened as a park, which landscape architect Richard Haag designed to incorporate elements of the old plant.
“(Haag) had a great vision for that,” Reid said. “This is not dissimilar.”
Reid said he envisions working with artists, the city and the port to figure out the best ways to reuse the tanks.
Tucked behind the six remaining digester tanks is a spherical metal tank known as the acid collector that also will be saved.
“It’s a bit like I have a cartoon vision, a bit like an omnidroid out of ‘The Incredibles,’” Reid said of the collector. “It could become a golden ball and on feet standing there as part of the new Whatcom Waterway park. Who knows?”
Artistic integration and access
Reid said he has talked informally with a Bellingham-based art collective that has taken an interest in the site.
The small group of artists is interested in how art can be integrated in the waterfront, and is compelled by the history and beauty of the historical structures and what they were once used for, said Karina White, one of the members who has visited from Los Angeles.
Industrial sites are central to how people live, she said, but many people don’t see the way things are created, such as the toilet paper that was once made at the G-P site in Bellingham.
“We don’t really get the opportunity to see and understand all of the effort and materials that go into making all of the things that we are using,” White said.
The collective has created public installations that interrupt daily life in “what are hopefully surprising and delightful ways,” with the intent of inviting people going by to stop and interact with each other when they might not otherwise have a reason to.
One example might be holding a tea party on a traffic island in the middle of a roundabout.
$1.1 million to $2.69 million 2013 estimate to save 3 digester tanks and two tile bleach tanks
“I think another thing that’s really essential is exploring access to art and trying to make things free and available,” White said. “We’re interested in bringing art out into the neighborhoods and into the city.
“Could you go inside the tanks? Have events in them, turn them into sculptures?” White asked. “Could you invite workshops to happen, have people learn how to weld? It’s a jumping-off point for a whole new look at how arts can enrich a community.”
Cost could be factor
No official decisions have yet been made on the use of the tanks, said Mike Hogan, port spokesman, but they will stay in place to keep options open for now.
“We talked to the demolition contractor and we’re retaining them for now for potential reuse, whether it be by a developer or the parks department,” Hogan said. “It wasn’t a big impact because the price of steel is really low.”
The port had KPFF Consulting Engineers draw up estimates in early 2013 for what it would cost to save one, two or three digester tanks, as well as the orange-tiled tanks that stand just to the north.
If the tanks had been shored up in place in 2013, with the idea that the public would be allowed to get close to them, cost estimates ranged from $1.1 million to $2.69 million, depending on the number of tanks that were to be saved.
The most expensive scenario included keeping both tile bleach tanks, and three digester tanks, with full soil improvements to stabilize the ground.
To go and create that as a modern piece of sculpture would cost a fortune.
John Reid, architect
For the digester tanks, it was recommended that the bubbling and cracking silver lead paint on the outside be removed, the outsides primed and repainted, and the brick liners inside removed to reduce the weight of each tank.
The work also assumed the foundation would be protected from damage during demolition, and the openings on the top and bottom of each tank would be sealed.
Of course, there will be cost issues, Reid said, including the work to sandblast the tanks, make sure their foundations are seismically sound, and proof them.
“But the potential for this historical continuity I suppose is interesting as opposed to completely wiping out and removing everything from the site,” Reid said. “To go and create that as a modern piece of sculpture would cost a fortune. It’s just a wonderful opportunity.”