Bellingham council ready to proceed on Whatcom Waterway park project

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 - The City Council is ready to approve a deal with the Port of Bellingham to use state grant money for development of a new Whatcom Waterway Park, after city staffers took steps to ease concerns that the project might mean doom for the old red brick digester building on the old Georgia-Pacific Corp. pulp mill site.

City Economic Development Manager Tara Sundin told council members that the final version of the agreement with the port no longer contained specific details, such as a map that depicted the proposed route of a future Commercial Street Green project that would appear to require removal of the 150-foot tall digester building.

She said the city would use its half of the $1.5 million in state money to plan and build Whatcom Waterway Park, but decisions on final configuration of the park won't be made until a waterfront land-use plan has been approved. The park design would not be complete for two more years, according to Sundin's presentation.

At a March 25 council session, member Jack Weiss objected that the plan for use of the $1.5 million in Washington Department of Commerce grant money was getting ahead of the waterfront planning process, now in its early stages at City Hall.

Weiss noted that the port's plan for use of its portion of the grant called for steps toward demolition of the digester building, the tallest structure on the site. Weiss had said the potential for saving the building should be studied first.

Port officials have said they will use part of their share of the state money to give reuse of the building one more look before they proceed with demolition, but they have always been skeptical that the building has a future.

The tall, thin building is a brick shell built to house the huge tanks once used to convert wood chips into pulp for tissue paper. It lacks a conventional building's floor structure. 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.

Port officials have proposed that some of the immense steel tanks inside the building could be kept at the site as reminders of the waterfront's industrial heritage.

In other waterfront-related discussion, council member Cathy Lehman said she has been talking with Port Commissioner Mike McAuley about the possibility of organizing some kind of public event on the waterfront, possibly as soon as this summer. Lehman said she thought it desirable to get as many people as possible down to the redevelopment site to help them realize its potential.

Mayor Kelli Linville said that was a good idea, although she noted there are safety problems at the site.

Council member Gene Knutson offered a tongue-in-cheek suggestion.

"We could have a 'tear down the digester building' party," he quipped.

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