Plans for Bellingham waterfront shifting to more modest goals

BELLINGHAM - Port of Bellingham and city officials provided a preview of a slimmed-down plan for a redeveloped central waterfront at a Thursday, May 3, joint meeting of City Council and the Port of Bellingham commission.

The plan won't be in final form for Planning Commission scrutiny and public hearings until fall, but some key changes from earlier planning proposals have emerged:

Indefinite postponement - but not yet abandonment - of the port's cherished plan to install a marina inside the old Georgia-Pacific Corp. wastewater treatment lagoon.

Eventual demolition of the Granary Building, which historic preservation advocates hoped to restore.

Elimination of a proposed "Log Pond Park" along the shoreline between the old G-P pier and the port's shipping terminal, to enable that area to be developed as a waterfront industrial job source.

Indefinite postponement of relocation of BNSF Railway Co. tracks that now cut through the idle industrial area.

Indefinite postponement of a new Cornwall Avenue railroad bridge to link downtown to the waterfront.

Construction of a waterfront link via a new Commercial Street bridge, once envisioned as a late-stage project, could now be built somewhat sooner than envisioned in previous plans, although no dates were offered for the estimated $30 million project.

For at least two years, it has been clear that both port and city were moving away from redevelopment visions born amid the real estate boom that was still heating up when the port acquired the old G-P property in 2005. The most significant message from Thursday's meeting may have been the fact that port and city now seem to be working together on the plan, and the conflicts of recent years over street alignment, the pace of development and other key issues appear to have been resolved.

But the plan still faces a long road that includes public hearings before the Planning Commission, expected to get under way this fall, followed by City Council review. Mayor Kelli Linville said the Planning Commission process alone could take three to four months.

City and port staffers who have been working on the plan explained its features to the port and city elected officials.

In discussing the marina plan, Port Environmental Director Mike Stoner made it clear that the port still hopes to see pleasure boats berthed inside the treatment lagoon's massive breakwater some day. But he also acknowledged that the port has already added some new slips as part of its recent Squalicum Harbor refurbishing, and that demand for new moorage has slackened in the economic downturn.

On the Granary Building, it now appears that city officials have accepted the port's view that it has no viable new uses.

Stoner told elected officials that the cost of rehabilitating it has been estimated at $14 million, resulting in usable space that would cost $533 per square foot. City Public Works Director Ted Carlson said the building also stands in the way of the best location for construction of a new waterfront access street that is needed for the first phase of development work to take place.

Tara Sundin, special projects manager with the city Planning Department, said the relocation of the railroad had once been envisioned as an early part of the redevelopment process. But now, with the pace of development expected to be slower, the attention will focus on redeveloping the northerly portion of the site that is not impacted by the railroad in its current configuration.

The Log Pond Park plan has been shelved because planners now think it best to designate that area for light, marine-related industry indefinitely, instead of designating it for eventual conversion to commercial, office and residential use. A permanent industrial designation will make it easier to attract investment there, Sundin said.

Carlson said the Cornwall Avenue bridge project and railroad relocation would cost an estimated $40 million, and there is no current way to get that money.

If all goes well, the first phase of waterfront development could be complete by the end of 2015 and would include:

construction of the new street link where the Granary now stands, potentially clearing the way for public or private building construction in the area;

turning the existing Central Avenue into a bike and pedestrian route;

the cleanup and redevelopment of the Cornwall Avenue landfill site as a new park, complete with an over-water walkway to Boulevard Park.

But the timeline for other major features such as the marina or the Commercial Street bridge extension into the waterfront is still to be determined.

"We're happy to see an end to that planning process and the beginning of something actually being done on the site," Linville said.


The preview of the revamped waterfront master plan is available at the city's website (PDF).

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