It’s been a long, meandering trip to redevelop the former Georgia-Pacific waterfront property, but the project is finally at a point where the public will start seeing some tangible activity beyond the makeover of the Granary Building.
Construction of the two main streets into the waterfront district – Granary Avenue and Laurel Street – is scheduled to begin in November, while work on Waypoint Park near the Whatcom Waterway is set to begin in late November or early December. Construction of new trails and plans for a residential project are expected in the coming year.
The three groups involved in this project – Port of Bellingham, City of Bellingham and Ireland-based Harcourt Developments – will meet this week to hammer out details on this first significant redevelopment of the 237-acre waterfront district, most of which the port purchased in 2005.
The slow pace of development has drawn concern and criticism, particularly since several projects were expected to get rolling after a public presentation in October 2016.
“Has it (the project) been progressing as people had hoped? No,” said Port of Bellingham Commissioner Dan Robbins, noting that any major development that involves three entities is going to have some delays. However, he is much more optimistic given where things are now. “I expect next spring there will be a beehive of activity down there.”
The current projects of roads, a park and the completion of the Granary Building will be an important step, because it means the public finally will have access to the property, said Port Commissioner Mike McAuley. Getting the streets and park in place are key before any real private development can take place, he said.
“We need to make sure we get the skeleton of the project in now, then let it grow,” McAuley said, noting further development will come at a deliberate pace, much like what has happened in the Barkley district over the past two decades.
Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville said there’s been a lot of under-the-radar work, such as securing money for environmental cleanup and creating plans – progress that takes a long time and doesn’t result in much the public can see.
“I have learned patience,” Linville said about the process.
Harcourt officials were unavailable to talk about waterfront development for this article, but they are scheduled to attend at least one invitation-only event later this week to talk to community members about the project.
WHAT TOOK SO LONG?
Road infrastructure, including sidewalks and power, needed to be in place before many other parts of the project could move forward, officials say.
More than a year ago, Harcourt requested a change in the planned street alignment, eliminating angled streets in early designs in favor of a more standard grid like the downtown core. Harcourt wanted to make Granary Avenue and Laurel Street the main entry points, necessitating a change to the street alignment, said Rob Fix, executive director for the port.
“The original plans could have worked, but this (grid street alignment) made more sense,” said Fix, adding that the updated street format creates more possibilities for connecting parks and trails.
The street alignment changes were significant enough to trigger an amendment change, something that can only be requested once a year in April to the city. That amendment is something the port intends to submit to city officials in April 2018.
The street alignment changes were not submitted in April 2017 because of several other unresolved issues, said Mike Hogan, a spokesman for the port.
Among them: moving Western Crossings to another part of the Waterfront District so that Harcourt could potentially renovate the Board Mill building. Western Crossing Development is a nonprofit corporation created to allow for a private/public partnership that would enable Western Washington University to buy and develop waterfront property.
The new spot for WWU is closer to the Bellingham Shipping Terminal.
“It was important to make sure the new Western Crossing area worked for WWU and didn’t compromise the ability of the Shipping Terminal and Log Pond Area to support job creation,” Hogan said in an email.
Work on Granary Avenue and Laurel Street also was delayed when port staff discovered an additional federal permit was needed.
The Granary Building is also behind schedule, but construction was slowed while Harcourt waits for the new streets, Fix said. With the stretch of Granary Avenue next to the building expected to be done by February, Fix said, Harcourt can start making tenant improvements next spring if it has leases in hand.
WHY ARE THERE NEW DESIGNS?
At an Oct. 3 Port Commission meeting, officials announced that representatives from Harcourt would visit Bellingham the week of Oct. 16. The developer wants to meet with port and city staff to present some new ideas to the overall design.
Port Planning Director Sylvia Goodwin said the intention is to listen to Harcourt’s ideas, consider the current plans and come up with a solution all three groups can agree on. Those changes would then be incorporated into the amendment that is due to the city in April.
The most recent design that the port has on its website is from October 2016, showing the grid street alignment and a park that wraps around the Cornwall Avenue side of the property. A portion of that proposed park, known unofficially as Bay or Serpentine, would be where the alcohol plant currently sits. That building can be reused, which could be part of the changes Harcourt wants to propose, Fix said. That might mean moving the park, but would not reduce the 33 acres allotted for new parks and trails in that portion of the waterfront district.
Any design changes by Harcourt would not only need approval from the Port and the City, but it would also go through a public process that would involve input from the community, Fix said.
WHY PUT IN PUBLIC, RESIDENTIAL PROJECTS FIRST?
With roads, parks, trails and residential buildings among the first new projects, the goal is to have people start regularly using the waterfront district first, with the hope that private businesses will follow.
There are a couple of reasons for this strategy.
Residential units – not commercial offices – are very much in demand in Bellingham. Rental vacancy rates are near zero in parts of Bellingham and the median home sales price topped $400,000 in the third quarter.
“Residential is where the demand is right now, while office space is a little slower,” said Fix. Market demand will dictate the pace of development, he said.
Also, businesses tend to follow people, McAuley said. If people are living in the waterfront district, or wandering through the parks and trails or launching kayaks, that will attract businesses.
LONG ROAD TO REDEVELOPMENT
Here’s are some of the major events since Georgia-Pacific shut down its pulp mill in 2001:
2017: The remodeling of the Granary building nears completion; construction of Granary Avenue and Laurel Street expected to start in November. Construction expected to begin on Waypoint Park.
2016: Completed $35 million cleanup of Whatcom Waterway.
2015: G-P’s digester and chipper buildings removed from site.
March 2015: Port of Bellingham signs deal with Harcourt Development to develop the first portion of the downtown waterfront.
December 2013: After eight years of back-and-forth, a master plan is approved by the port and city.
June 2013: Port agrees to provide waterfront site for Western Washington University.
September 2012: After initially planning to demolish it, the port decides to let private developers refurbish the Granary Building.
August 2009: Bellingham loses out on bid to put in a NOAA Marine Operations facility, project goes to Newport, Ore.
December 2007: Georgia-Pacific ends its tissue operations, laying off 210 people.
January 2005: Port buys the 137 acres of waterfront property from Georgia-Pacific. Combined with the other properties the port already had, the overall size of the Waterfront District is 237 acres.
March 2001: Georgia-Pacific shuts down its pulp mill operations, laying off more than 400 people.
Source: The Bellingham Herald archives
Here’s what is expected to happen in the coming months on the 237-acre waterfront property:
Roads: Construction of Granary Avenue and Laurel Street by Whatcom-based Ram Construction is expected to start in November. About 500 feet of road that would access the Granary building is expected to be completed by February, according to the Bellingham Public Works Department.
Granary building: Project is finishing up and Harcourt will start looking for businesses to occupy the spaces. If Harcourt has signed leases, tenant improvement work should begin in the early spring of 2018, said Rob Fix, executive director at the port.
Waypoint Park: Construction is scheduled to begin in late November or early December, with Whatcom-based Strider Construction doing work on the one-acre park. When completed it will have a new beach, playground, the installation of the acid ball and waterfront trail. Work on the nearby pier was awarded to Ram Construction earlier this year and is expected to be completed this fall.
Trail: Connecting the Granary building down to Cornwall Beach park with a trail is a key goal for the port and the community, so work on at least an interim trail is expected to begin in 2018, Fix said.
Residential and hotel: The next projects on tap are expected to be residential units – probably condominiums – next to the Whatcom Waterway, and a waterfront hotel. Specifics about these two projects still need to be worked out, but at this point they are next on the to-do list after the current projects.