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Sparks fly at Port meeting over plans for the Waterfront District

Former Georgia-Pacific pulp mill site on the Bellingham waterfront Friday, Oct. 20, 2017.
Former Georgia-Pacific pulp mill site on the Bellingham waterfront Friday, Oct. 20, 2017. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

A discussion about the latest waterfront design got a bit heated at Tuesday night’s Port Commission meeting.

Port of Bellingham Commissioner Mike McAuley used the last few minutes of the meeting to strongly criticize the latest plans for the Waterfront District, which includes the former Georgia-Pacific property on Bellingham’s waterfront. He made it clear he was not voting for the latest design, saying “this is not close to what the public asked us to provide.”

“This isn’t even close to what we’ve been showing the public,” McAuley said at the meeting. “I’m not necessarily upset there is a new plan, but there is no way... that I’m going to advocate for this plan.”

The biggest change in the long-term plan is to the park, known unofficially as Bay or Serpentine. The previous draft plan would have the park start at the Granary building and snake around the property near Cornwall Avenue down to the Bellingham Shipping Terminal, creating a trail connection to Cornwall Beach. Harcourt Development, which is tasked with redeveloping the property, proposed some changes developers felt would make the project successful.

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A rendering of what officials were considering in October 2016 for redevelopment of the Waterfront District. Earlier last week officials made changes to the plan, particularly to the park layout. Port of Bellingham Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

The new draft plan presented to the Port Commission on Oct. 17 showed a park that did not extend to the Granary Building, instead adding more park to the Whatcom Waterway area. It also proposed putting in a large building potentially for student housing, along with an assisted living facility.

Along with the park changes, a concern McAuley has with the latest draft is that he doesn’t think it provides enough economic development, particularly jobs. He noted that a student housing and assisted living facilities are development, but not many jobs are tied to the buildings once construction is done.

Port of Bellingham Executive Director Rob Fix responded to McAuley’s criticisms, saying the current plan is a draft, something that is still being refined. He said the changes were needed to address a few problems, including a need for a third entry point into the Waterfront District from Bay Street and keeping a former GP structure – known as the Alcohol building – in order to renovate it.

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A rough sketch of the changes staff from Harcourt, Port of Bellingham and the City of Bellingham are proposing for waterfront development, presented at a TAG event in the Granary Building on Oct. 18. The Granary Building in this sketch is in the upper right corner in blue; proposed condominiums near the Whatcom Waterway are shown in light purple; the proposed Boardmill hotel is in brown on the left and the proposed student housing or retirement facility is at the bottom in gold. Dave Gallagher dgallagher@bhamherald.com

That resulted in a heated exchange, with McAuley eventually shouting that the plan “was managed terribly.”

In a phone interview on Wednesday, McAuley said the changes Harcourt Development was seeking could be addressed without making such dramatic changes to the park. The park could be moved about 50 feet to keep the Alcohol building, for example, and the third entry could go in without big changes to the design, McAuley said.

“I’m angry. I didn’t want to have that discussion in public, but it had to be done,” McAuley said. “I’m not opposed to them (Harcourt) making money on the project, but this plan is all about making money.”

The Port and Harcourt are facing a tight deadline in order to make significant changes to the long-term plan. An amendment needs to be submitted by April to the City of Bellingham. In order to get the paperwork together to submit to the city, Port staff would probably need a decision from Port commissioners before the end of the year. That is significant because McAuley’s term expires at the end of the year. Ken Bell currently leads Barry Wenger in the race to replace McAuley as commissioner, while Michael Shepard has a slight lead over incumbent Dan Robbins, according to unofficial election results released by the Whatcom County Auditor’s Office Wednesday afternoon.

In an email Wednesday, Fix reiterated that the current draft rendering is the first step in what will be an extensive public process. He said the Port expects to receive an updated site plan from Harcourt next week. Port staff will then put together some additional maps and analysis and then provide regular updates for the Port, city and public over the next several months.

“It is important to note that while the Sub-Area Plan Amendment is expected to change the street and park locations, it will not change the type of development or the density agreed upon by the port and the city back in 2013,” Fix said.

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The discussions about the long-term plans have no impact on what’s currently happening on the waterfront. Construction is getting started on the new Waypoint Park near the Whatcom Waterway along with two roads – Granary Avenue and Laurel Street.

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz

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