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The Gristle

Roads to Nowhere

ROADS TO NOWHERE: OWW, that’s got to hurt: The Overwater Walkway is dead.

Originally proposed in a 2006 federal grant request, the $4 million project was intended to connect Boulevard Park with the proposed Cornwall Beach Park, bypassing at-grade rail crossings, and providing a continuous corridor south to link up with the popular Taylor Street boardwalk. The project was reviewed and provisionally approved by the Bellingham Hearings Examiner in 2010. But the project ran out of time to be eligible for the federal grant agreement.

“Given the time taken to review the permit and the work left to be done to negotiate with the tribe and complete cleanup within the MTCA sites, federal funds will not be spent within the time frame of the grant  agreement,” City of Bellingham Project Engineer Gina Austin reported, referring in part to remediation funds made available through the state’s Model Toxics Control Act.

It’s a condition we’ll likely see more frequently in the future, as state and federal grant programs dry up and other benighted harbors around the state compete aggressively for limited remediation dollars.

The Taylor Street project faced similar hurdles (and similar public criticism and obstruction), but today is used by more than 900,000 pedestrians and bicyclists each year and is easily considered one of the best, most popular public works projects undertaken by the City of Bellingham in many years, an asset to recreation, tourism and access to parks and trails. Perhaps the best thing that can be said for it is that it gets the public thinking and caring about their waterfront assets, wanting more of them; and the loss of OWW complicates connectivity problems between the city’s waterfront parks.

Lummi Nation played a role in the delay that ran out the clock on OWW, making a claim that the structure could impair their treaty fishing rights. The tribe was not especially aggressive about the claim—their attention was turned elsewhere—and the reality is that the four-to-ten feet of woodwaste covering the bottom of Bellingham Bay from a century of industrial pulping and dumping operations harms their fishery far more catastrophically than does a boardwalk. The woodwaste creates acidic, anaerobic—even lifeless—conditions at the bottom of the bay that in itself retards the decomposition of the waste and its breakdown in the natural environment. And it’s a problem that will endure longer than the projected life of the now-abandoned project.

“The Lummi Nation is committed to investing funds and staff resources toward analyzing Bellingham Bay projects, including this one,” Lummi Chairman Tim Ballew II reassured the mayor in 2014. “However, the effect on future generations will take time. While we understand a third party has imposed a deadline for funding a portion of construction costs, it does not lessen our responsibility to perform due diligence and comment on findings.”

While they’re a potent government, Lummi is also a small one and since 2010 has had their limited resources directed at Cherry Point.

A more truculent (and remote) partner is BNSF Railway and its control of the at-grade crossings at Boulevard Park and Wharf Street. Wharf Street is scheduled to close as part of a rail realignment proposed in the phased waterfront redevelopment plan. That planned closure compounded by the loss of OWW removes nearly every possibility of tying the proposed Cornwall Beach cul-de-sac into other parks and trails.

Perhaps most lamentable about the loss of the public walkway is that state surface transportation funding now shifts to the Granary Avenue street project. Bellingham City Council last week approved an authorization that allows the mayor to develop an interlocal agreement with the Port of Bellingham to begin work on Granary Avenue.
The agreement perhaps signals the reawakening of a proposal to rehabilitate the historic Granary Building, as part of the master development agreement the port inked with Dublin-based Harcourt Development after a year of negotiation, the first project on an 18.8-acre development site.

Port commissioners greenlighted the rehabilitation in 2015, giving the developer four years (plus extensions) to begin work on the weathered and decaying building.

Having produced nothing but delays, having constructed not a matchstick, Harcourt now wants other amendments to that development agreement, seeking to abandon their commitment to build a second new building in the agreed area and focusing interest instead on the Board Mill building much deeper into the site and outside the original pilot development. Grievously, their proposal comes with an alteration to street alignments that would cut into public access of the shoreline. An L-shaped connector between the proposed Granary Avenue and Laurel Street places its lanky concrete elbow directly over the Commercial Street Green, a commons promised to the public since the earliest inception of the plan. The street alignment approved via dozens of quarrelsome public meetings is abandoned wholesale with no public process at all!

City Council foolishly facilitated this in February when they permitted changes to the interlocal agreement with the port, allowing that agency license for substantial changes to the street alignments detailed in the master development agreement that serves as the public’s assurance against bait-&-switch shenanigans.

The port, after hijacking the central waterfront plan nearly 20 years ago, has finally neared completion of the first [!] stage of the cleanup of the inner waterway. Alas, after that the MTCA cleanup dollars mostly dry up. In the years of port hostage-taking and foot-dragging that followed the hijack, the Legislature (courtesy of Sen. Doug Ericksen) reprioritized MTCA funding in the state’s 2015-17 biennial budget.

Years have dragged on, money and interest has been lost, and public access to a public waterfront evaporates behind the chain link fence and razor wire of a dismal brownfield. OWW, indeed.


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