Port, Bellingham release long-awaited waterfront plan

The Georgia-Pacific Corp. pulp and tissue mill site, pictured in this aerial photo made in June, 2010, is part of 237 waterfront acres that are being planned for long-term redevelopment.
The Georgia-Pacific Corp. pulp and tissue mill site, pictured in this aerial photo made in June, 2010, is part of 237 waterfront acres that are being planned for long-term redevelopment. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

BELLINGHAM - The latest plan for the city's waterfront confirms the shift toward long-term industrial usage for much of the old Georgia-Pacific Corp. pulp and tissue mill site now owned by the Port of Bellingham.

In the years that followed the port's acquisition of 137 acres of G-P property in 2005, preliminary maps showed a sizeable park along the area known as the log pond, an artificial inlet along Whatcom Waterway where logs once floated on their way to the chipper and their final destiny as toilet paper. Early plans also envisioned conversion of much of the area next to the log pond park into a mixed-use area with residences, shops and office space.

But those visions arose during the real estate boom. Once that boom went bust, it became evident that the pace of residential and commercial development would be much slower.

Since at least 2010, port and city officials have made it clear that the southwestern portion of the mill site and the port's adjacent shipping terminal acreage probably would remain industrial for the foreseeable future, while development activity focuses on the waterfront areas closest to Old Town and downtown.

The value of the other end of the site in attracting industrial jobs was proven earlier this year when Superior Energy leased a portion of the port property for construction of a complex barge-mounted oil spill containment vessel.

The new draft of the waterfront plan released Thursday, Nov. 15, outlines development goals for the 137-acre G-P property as well as surrounding port and city-owned lands, for a total of 237 acres.

It does not call for an overall reduction in the amount of new waterfront park acreage. Instead, the plan envisions a smaller greenbelt and shoreline restoration along the edge of the log pond, with a larger waterfront park with 14 acres of upland and three acres of restored beach at the end of Cornwall Avenue that would eventually be linked to Boulevard Park via an over-the-water walkway.

Port and city officials have scheduled meetings of the Waterfront Advisory Group, a citizen advisory panel, to review the new draft so it can begin a formal review process by the end of 2012. That process will involve hearings before the city's Planning Commission and eventual review by both the City Council and port commission.

"Our goal has been to complete and submit a draft plan by Dec. 31, and the port and city teams are on track to meet this goal," Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville said in a press release.

The Waterfront Advisory Group review meetings are scheduled for 6 to 9 p.m. Nov. 28 and Dec. 6 at the Harbor Center Conference Room, 1801 Roeder Ave. Documents being reviewed by the Advisory Group are posted on the city and port websites.

"We look forward to putting the final touches on proposed agreements and getting them ready for public and legislative review," Linville said. "We expect these proposals to go through a robust public input process beginning early next year. When that time comes the public will have available to them all the information they need to participate in decisions about how the waterfront will develop."

The last draft plan for the waterfront was issued in 2010 and received the blessing of the Waterfront Advisory Group, but it never got to the next stage in the process because the port and city had difficulty reaching agreement on a host of related issues until now, said port spokeswoman Carolyn Casey.

The document released Thursday contains some significant changes from the 2010 version but no real surprises. In May 2012, port and city officials had unveiled an outline of where they were headed. Among the changes since 2010:

- Boundaries of the plan area have been enlarged to 237 acres from 220 by adding some bluffs along Cornwall Avenue while deleting a small portion of Old Town.

- The log pond park plan is scaled down to a 50-foot shoreline buffer with a small park and trail.

- The park at the end of Cornwall Avenue will be bigger to make up the acreage subtracted at the log pond.

- The southern section of old G-P wharf will be left in place for industrial use; an earlier plan called for its removal.

- Total square footage, once envisioned at 6 million square feet, is trimmed to 5.3 million maximum, which won't be achieved for decades.

- A $30 million bridge over the railroad tracks down to the bay eventually would be built at Commercial Street, rather than Cornwall Avenue, as the first major access point as the northeastern part of the waterfront is redeveloped in the years ahead. No specific date for such a project has been set.

- A Cornwall Avenue bridge would be built later, once BNSF Railway tracks are moved, but there is no completion date for that project either.

The timeline is intentionally vague. The port's Casey said the pace of construction of streets and other public investments will depend on the pace of development. That, in turn, will depend on the degree of enthusiasm private investors and developers have for launching projects in the area.

Taxes on development will help the city recover its costs, and those costs are substantial. The plan provides a rough estimate of close to $50 million to build streets to enable development to occur, most of which is the Commercial Street bridge. Parks and trails would add another $19 million.

But the biggest cost is environmental cleanup, now estimated at about $82 million. About $70 million of that will be on the port's tab.

The port has set aside some millions for that purpose and figures to obtain state Department of Ecology grants to cover half of the cost of many, or even most, cleanup projects. The port also expects to recover costs by selling or leasing some of the property after cleanup.