WWU OK with developer’s plan to rebuild waterfront building

The Board Mill building at the former Georgia Pacific site on Bellingham’s waterfront, August 2015.
The Board Mill building at the former Georgia Pacific site on Bellingham’s waterfront, August 2015. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Ireland-based Harcourt Developments is two steps closer to being able to purchase and renovate the Board Mill building on Bellingham’s waterfront.

The first step came Tuesday, May 3, when the Port of Bellingham Commission gave the developer a six-month extension to apply for permits for a second building to follow the Granary Building revamp.

According to terms laid out in a development agreement that gives Harcourt first dibs to buy and develop nearly 19 acres on the waterfront, the firm was supposed to apply for permits for its second building by May 19. But port staff said that deadline was set before the developers expressed an interest in saving the Board Mill building and turning it into a hotel and conference center, with the potential for residential space.

The six-month extension does not necessarily dictate that the Board Mill will be the second building, said Sylvia Goodwin, port planning director.

Commissioner Mike McAuley criticized the request for an extension, saying the developers had a year to come up with a proposal for a second building.

Port staff explained that the firm, which does have preliminary drawings, wouldn’t be able to apply for permits for the Board Mill yet because they don’t own it, and as of Tuesday, the building remained in a 6-acre footprint set aside for Western Washington University’s nonprofit corporation called Western Crossing Development.

The corporation was created in 2009 to allow for a private/public partnership on the waterfront and enable the university to buy waterfront property.

Aside from the extension, McAuley said he didn’t think the proposal would create the public benefit of high-paying jobs.

“When I look at their proposal for this second building, I don’t see the job creation aspect that the public sort of expected from Harcourt or anybody. I see service sector jobs,” McAuley said during the Tuesday evening meeting. “If the outcome of this project ... is exactly what the private sector was going to do without port involvement, than why was the port involved at all?”

If the Board Mill were not approved as the second project for Harcourt, the second building would likely be residential, and next to the Granary, Goodwin said.

Commissioner Dan Robbins said he agreed with McAuley that things hadn’t gotten going on the waterfront as quickly as he had hoped.

“On the other hand, I want to save that Board Mill building that’s in Western Crossing, although a building next to the Granary would be a plus,” Robbins said.

The commission voted 3-0 to extend the permit application deadline. Their full discussion can be viewed online at YouTube.com/PortBellingham.

Footprint shift

The next step toward getting permission to work on the Board Mill came Wednesday, May 4, when the Western Crossing board approved removing the building from its acreage during its annual meeting.

Port Executive Director Rob Fix, who sits on the Western Crossing board, explained to the other members Harcourt’s interest in turning the Board Mill into a hotel.

Because the building is in the footprint set aside for Western, the port proposed moving that 6-acre rectangle south of the building, partway into the light industrial portion of the site.

“It basically takes three acres out of what we now call the industrial area, and adds it to Western Crossing,” Fix explained.

The plan would then be to shift 4.1 acres along Cornwall Avenue to light industrial. Harcourt would still only have the first rights on roughly 19 acres.

Outgoing WWU President Bruce Shepard asked whether moving the university’s footprint closer to an area known as the log pond would create any new environmental issues.

There are other contaminants in that area, Fix explained, “but no matter where you go in the site there are pockets that are contaminated with heavier materials.”

Shepard said the university supports plans to preserve the building, as well as have the opportunity to hold conferences there.

The board approved the shift in the footprint.

“For Western, we want to be as accommodating as we can for people wanting to develop this,” Shepard said. “We have concerns about moving closer to the light industrial, but as Rob pointed out, it will be light industrial. We are talking 40 to 50 years out, and it’s hard to imagine that land will be industrial at all.”


The area set aside for light industrial use is the southern portion of the former Georgia-Pacific Corp. pulp and tissue mill operation.

The port is expected to finish capping the northern portion of the site, known as the pulp and tissue mill area, this year, said Brian Sato, site manager with the state Department of Ecology.

Over the next month or two, the northern portion will be capped, following up on removal work that has already happened, Sato said Thursday, May 5.

“In general terms, a lot of heavy lifting has been done towards cleaning up this site,” Sato said. “We are now starting to see the completion of the fruits of our labors. I’m very enthusiastic and excited to see this project get through cleanup.”

But the southern industrial portion of the site is more complicated in terms of cleanup, largely due to mercury contamination concentrated near the south-central portion of the site, Sato said.

Ecology and the port are working on possible options for cleaning up that portion, and expect to bring a plan forward for public review in late 2016.

Next steps for Board Mill

The port will now have to negotiate a deal with Harcourt, which would purchase the Board Mill building and redraw the boundaries of the acreage it may develop, Fix said.

The port commissioners would have to sign off on the new boundaries.

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil