BELLINGHAM - Port of Bellingham staffers are still trying to make the case for demolition of the waterfront Granary Building, but they have yet to convince some City Council members, real estate developers and Port Commissioner Mike McAuley.
At a Tuesday, July 17, port commission meeting, Port Environmental Director Mike Stoner reiterated his earlier contentions that the estimated $14 million cost to adapt the old building for new uses could never be recovered by private investors.
Stoner also argued that the Granary Building blocks the best access point for new street and pedestrian connections that are needed to get waterfront redevelopment under way.
Stoner suggested that the redeveloped waterfront could pay tribute to the site's history with an entranceway that mimics the façade of Citizens' Dock, a historic waterfront structure that the city obtained for $1 in 1980 in hopes of rehabilitating it. Over the next few years, unfunded redevelopment proposals for Citizens' Dock came and went. In 1987 the old dock began to collapse into the bay and had to be demolished.
"All of the evidence, from our perspective, suggests that we're going to be taking down this (Granary) building," Stoner said.
But some developers and at least two City Council members - Michael Lilliquist and Jack Weiss - say they want the port to seek proposals from would-be developers before they decide the Granary's fate. Both Weiss and Lilliquist attended Tuesday's port meeting, and Weiss said he plans to introduce a resolution at the Monday, July 23, council meeting calling on port commissioners to do that.
Stoner and Lydia Bennett, the port's director of business development, argued that seeking such proposals would be a time-consuming process that would delay waterfront redevelopment.
Bennett said she thought a redevelopment of the building would require some kind of public or private grant subsidy that would be difficult to obtain. She also questioned whether banks would be willing to lend the millions that would be needed.
Port Commissioner McAuley noted that opinions on the building's potential differ widely. He wanted to know why the port had not sought redevelopment proposals from developers years ago, to settle the question of whether the building is suitable for reuse.
"Now we're stuck in a position where we have to justify what we want to do," McAuley said.
McAuley said he thinks it is likely the building will have to go, but he doesn't want to make that decision until city engineers complete their study of alternative sites for waterfront street and pedestrian access.
"I'd love to have those numbers before we start knocking the building down," McAuley said.
Commissioner Scott Walker said he too wanted a better analysis of the Granary's liabilities and economic potential before making up his mind.
The third commissioner, Jim Jorgensen, was absent.
The Granary Building was built in 1928 as the focal point of a once-booming egg and poultry business in Whatcom County. It has been vacant for decades, and was the property of Georgia-Pacific Corp. before that company shut down its waterfront pulp and paper operations and handed over its 137 acres of industrial land to the port in 2005.
Since that time, port officials have argued that the building is not salvageable. They say seawater seeps into its basement at high tide.
Former Mayor Dan Pike and his staff favored preservation of the Granary and other old waterfront structures if possible, but current Mayor Kelli Linville and her staff now seem to agree that the Granary must go, partly because it would block what seems to be the best route for street access to a redeveloped waterfront.
Developer John Blethen is among those who remain to be convinced.
Blethen, who has been involved in waterfront issues for years as a member of the Waterfront Futures Group, Waterfront Advisory Group, and unsuccessful port commission candidate, agrees that the $14 million price tag for a Granary rehab is a deal breaker if it is accurate. But he is convinced that it is inflated.
Blethen wants the port to give independent experts and would-be investors more access to the building to see if they agree that the cost would be that high.
Port Facilities Director Fred Seeger said a consultant found that the building is contaminated with health hazards such as asbestos, lead, and bird droppings, and anyone who goes inside would need to don protective gear.
In a post-meeting discussion, Blethen told Bennett that Grace Pleasants, who spearheaded the redevelopment of the Albers Mill on the Tacoma waterfront, is eager to have a look at Bellingham's Granary. Bennett told Blethen she would be open to that.
According to a report in The News Tribune of Tacoma, Pleasants converted the 1904 Albers building into loft apartments and retail space, after overcoming opposition from city officials and developers of adjacent sites who wanted the old mill knocked down. But Albers later lost control of the property when one of her lenders foreclosed.