Developers offer various visions for Bellingham waterfront

The Granary Building on Bellingham's waterfront, built in 1928 as the focal point of a once-booming egg and poultry business in Whatcom County, is just one of many sites being considered for redevelopment by the Port of Bellingham.
The Granary Building on Bellingham's waterfront, built in 1928 as the focal point of a once-booming egg and poultry business in Whatcom County, is just one of many sites being considered for redevelopment by the Port of Bellingham. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

BELLINGHAM - Nine would-be developers have provided the Port of Bellingham with preliminary ideas for the first phase of waterfront development, and they have widely varying ideas about the suitability of the Granary Building for rehabilitation.

The Granary's prospects are just one element of the development plans presented in rough outline in response to the port's request for expressions of developer interest in a small portion of its waterfront holdings envisioned as the first phase of long-awaited waterfront redevelopment. The site is 10.8 acres at the northeastern edge of the old Georgia-Pacific Corp. mill site along Whatcom Waterway.

Among the ideas that developers are discussing are artist lofts, luxury hotels, a swimming pool, apartments, offices and shops.

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 years and was the property of Georgia-Pacific Corp. before that company shut down and handed over its 137 acres of industrial land to the port in 2005.

Until recently, port officials had contended the Granary was not salvageable and would have to be demolished. But preservation advocates convinced the port to give would-be developers a chance to do something with it.

A team composed of Zervas Group Architects and Tollhouse Energy proposes powering The Granary with electricity that could be generated by hydropower from the old Georgia-Pacific Corp. industrial water main.

"We believe The Granary must be developed first in order to create an irresistible synergy that will drive demand for more development," architect Michael Smith wrote in a cover letter to the port.

Bellingham developers John Blethen and James Willson, outspoken advocates for Granary preservation, also have expressed interest.

"Our vision for the structure is a mix of retail, restaurant and offices," they wrote. "It would be our intent to refurbish the building's exterior immediately upon acquisition."

The Canadian-based Molnar Group, current owner of the Hotel Bellwether, is more skeptical.

"Our current opinion is that the renovation of the Granary Building could be financially prohibitive," the firm writes. "However, we will keep an open mind."

Also among the skeptics is a submission from Lorig Associates and Lorax Partners of Seattle.

"The driver of the synergy we see coming to the waterfront, the excitement that turns heads, attracts tenants, and draws and expands the downtown will be anchored by the improvements to the waterfront and the new tenants and buildings that complement that edge," the Lorig-Lorax team wrote. "As a focus, the Granary is not the driver of the first step to redevelopment."

Utah-based Rockworth Companies expresses a willingness to consider the use of the Granary for its historic value, but says a decision can't be made until structural and architectural feasibility studies are done.

They envision ground-floor retail and public gathering space, office and residential areas on upper levels, and perhaps even an observation deck on top.

Other highlights from the preliminary developer submissions:

Minneapolis-based Artspace Projects Inc. expresses a willingness to be involved in developing self-supporting live-and-work rental spaces for artists.

Bellingham Whatcom County Housing Authorities is interested in securing a 1.25-acre portion of the site for 100 units of lower-cost housing.

Rockworth proposes 300 to 400 higher-end rental housing units as the first phase of waterfront development, with amenities that could include parks and a community center with swimming pool and fitness center, thereby generating activity that would attract retail, office and hotel development.

Seattle-based Touchstone expresses interest in an office building in the 100,000-to-250,000-square-foot size range, a possible 200-room hotel, and apartments.

Molnar Group says demand for rental housing is high and proposes a five-story apartment building as a first step.

P4 Solutions, a multinational group that includes local architect Dave Christensen, Realtor David Moody and businessman Charlie Heggem, envisions a four- or five-star hotel with more than 200 rooms that could complement a Western Washington University project and "world-class aquarium."

Lydia Bennett, the port's director of business development, said this is just a preliminary round to give port and city officials an idea of the level of developer interest in the waterfront, as the master planning process moves ahead.

While that process is under way at City Hall, the port will be undertaking more serious discussions with developers and investors, seeking formal development proposals that would be submitted in May 2013. By the end of this year, the port hopes to have a developer or developers contractually committed to purchase the 10.8-acre property and develop it.

Developers can be involved in the final development of the master plan to make sure it is compatible with their needs, Bennett added.

Matt Anderson, principal with the Heartland LLC consulting group working with the port to recruit developers, said Bellingham appears to have a strong brand.

"The perception of Bellingham outside the area is really very strong," Anderson said. "People say, 'I love Bellingham.' I must have heard that a dozen times."

Anderson said he hasn't heard any concern about waterfront rail traffic that could be generated if the Gateway Pacific Terminal coal export pier is built at Cherry Point.

"Everybody knows about the trains," Anderson said. "It's certainly something to watch, but right now it's not foremost on peoples' minds."