A decade after the Port of Bellingham purchased a contaminated waterfront site, the Port Commission unanimously cleared the way for an Irish development firm to start the first work there.
The three commissioners gave the OK to sign onto a development agreement with Dublin-based Harcourt Developments during an extended special meeting Tuesday, March 31, after hours of public comment and discussion about the agreement.
Before the 3-0 vote, commissioner Dan Robbins said that the contract was a good move for the county.
"No contract is perfect, but this contract is a good one," Robbins said.
Commissioner Jim Jorgensen said the port had gotten over a lot of hurdles to get to the deal, and he thought they’d done well.
“Just the thought of site prep happening, shovels of dirt being moved and equipment on that site is enough to get me excited,” Jorgensen said.
During the evening portion of the long special meeting, a few people said they felt that the port taking public comment just before signing the document was not a fair, public process.
Commissioner Mike McAuley responded to those concerns, saying that the port doesn't bring any other land or lease deal before the public before signing it.
"That's not what ports do. ... That's why we're elected. Sometimes we have a deal before us and it's hard to look at people and know you didn't have a public process, but ports don't do that," McAuley said. "We're very different from cities and counties in this respect."
Sylvia Goodwin, port planning director, pointed out that the port has been working on the project for more than 10 years.
“There’s been a lot of good comments from the public on the environmental impact statement, and the plan, and the plan has changed,” Goodwin said.
Harcourt now will be able to start work on the northwestern corner of the waterfront site — once home to the Georgia-Pacific Corp. pulp, chemical and tissue operations — that the port obtained in 2005.
When the meeting first opened in the afternoon, a packed room heard a presentation on the agreement and got to listen in as the three port commissioners spoke over speakerphone with Harcourt’s sales director Pat Power.
The commissioners asked a few broad questions: Why is Harcourt interested in developing a site halfway around the world? What kind of development had they done before? What types of use are imagined for the Granary Building, which is first on the slate, with the rebuild set to be finished by 2019?
Power offered up examples of previous projects: Harcourt is well-known for the Park West development in Dublin, with more than 4 million square feet of mixed-use, commercial, residential, hotel and retail space, and the Titanic Quarter in Belfast, Northern Ireland, which so far has roughly 1.6 million square feet developed.
“I have to say we were encouraged (to come) there by an architect we’ve done work with for a number of years,” Power said, of pursuing the waterfront project. “It’s not rare for us to go to far away places.”
That architect, John Reid, spoke when the meeting reconvened later in the evening. Reid said he was glad to have helped bring Harcourt here, and he thought they were looking forward to this project.
"I know the owner of Harcourt Developments, Pat Doherty, is very excited about this project," Reid said. "I don't regard him as a developer. I regard him as an entrepreneur. He's a very exciting man to work with."
As for the Granary, Power said Harcourt planned to get to work right away.
“We’re planning for permits to start the first two buildings as closely as possible,” Power said. “We would like again to show sincerity about getting going as quickly as physically possible.”
Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville took a moment to speak at the meeting, saying she was relieved to see that the concerns laid out in the master development plan the city and port spent a year and a half designing were honored in the agreement. She said she appreciated that Harcourt had changed the designs over the year-long negotiation process to more closely match the character of the community.
“The city’s interest has always been cleanup, access and jobs,” Linville said. “In case you’re worried about us not being prepared to do our part, we are. You don’t have to worry about the city holding this up.”
Harcourt has two weeks to pay the port $200,000 for the Granary Building and site, a price less than what other development groups had offered during a request for proposals process in 2013, but which port staff said was necessary to lump into the deal with Harcourt to make the major development cohesive.
The rest of the roughly 19-acre site will be sold project by project, at a rate of $20 per square foot.
During public comment, developer David Ebenal said that price would short-change the public.
Development would be market-driven, Port Executive Director Rob Fix said, but there is an option under the agreement that would allow the port to sell part of the 19 acres to another developer if Harcourt doesn’t think the time is right, but the port decides it is.
“I have nothing against Harcourt, they sound like they’ve got a great track record, and they sound like the right developer for the site,” Ebenal said. “But to be tied in for 20 bucks a square foot is not good for the community.”
The concerns about the price per square foot also were raised by Seattle real estate salesman Gary Danklefsen.
“We think once the first couple of buildings get built, you’ll have appreciation into $50 to $100 per square foot, and you don’t benefit from that,” Danklefsen said during public comment.
The port reached that price based on previous sales and what are considered to be the complications of building on the site, Fix said.