Concern over big G-P building delays city-port deal on waterfront

The digester building at the former Georgia Pacific West Inc. site in Bellingham, shown April 16, 2009.
The digester building at the former Georgia Pacific West Inc. site in Bellingham, shown April 16, 2009. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

BELLINGHAM - After City Council member Jack Weiss raised concerns about possible demolition of the old digester building on the Georgia-Pacific Corp. mill site, the council agreed to a two-week delay on approval of a deal with the Port of Bellingham to move ahead on waterfront planning work.

The council was being asked to approve an arrangement for sharing a $1.5 million state grant for waterfront work, awarded jointly to the port and city. The arrangement called for the port to spend its half of the money on removal of "inactive industrial structures" to prepare the area for streets, parks and eventual private investment. The city would use its half on planning and building Whatcom Waterway Park at the northwest end of the waterfront site.

But Weiss noted that the specifics of the port's contract with the state Department of Commerce called for preliminary steps toward demolition of the 150-foot-tall digester building, a red brick structure that is the tallest on the old G-P pulp mill property the port now owns.

"This grant is going to be used to take down a building that could be part of a historic district," Weiss said.

Mike Stoner, the port's environmental director, noted that a 2009 architect's survey of old G-P buildings found that the cost of earthquake-safety measures and other work to make the digester building reusable would far exceed the return on that investment, even if it qualified for tax breaks as a historic structure.

"It's too tall, it's too skinny," Stoner said. "This, from our perspective, is one more building down there that doesn't appear to work."

Other structures, such as the Granary Building and the board mill, are better candidates for new uses, Stoner said.

But Weiss argued that although the digester building stands in the path of a proposed Commercial Street Green to be built within the site, that project is years away. Plans for it have yet to win final approval from the city and port, and he saw no need to rush ahead with demolition plans.

Council member Cathy Lehman suggested that the council take up the matter again at their next meeting, April 8, and the rest of the council agreed.

After the meeting, Stoner said the delay was not a problem. Although port officials consider the digester building to not be reusable, port commissioners have yet to make a final decision on its fate. That decision can wait until the building gets one more round of study that will be paid for by the state grant.

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