The Gristle

Call of the Mild
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CALL OF THE MILD: Partisanship and gridlock, they’re not at all the same thing.

Partisanship, which frequently springs from strongly held views, can set the size and shape of a policy debate. Backstopped at the extreme ends of divided opinion are partisan goals. Midfield are all manner of things that might be bargained and conceded in order to nudge the debate toward those goals. Gridlock is paralysis, an inability to move toward goals. Ironically, gridlock can arise because there are no strongly held views, no clear path that frames and gives meaning and value to policy debate.

Case in point, you could not slip a piece of paper between the social and policy views of Bellingham City Council, but they’ve become paralyzed as a legislative body. Council continues to move glacially on policy matters that have been on their plate for years.

Council support fades for a development authority at the very moment when a locally controlled and managed public-private partnership may be required for the central waterfront. The council learned on Monday that a property owner had withdrawn from a partnership agreement to assemble public and private property near the waterfront at Army Street, a key player that would control the corners at Bay Street and with them a potential gateway into the Waterfront District.

Port of Bellingham Commissioners may learn later this month about the status of an agreement with a master developer for their portion of the district. In February, commissioners approved a 120-day window for staff to negotiate with Dublin-based Harcourt Developments Limited to develop an initial 10.8-acre offer of Bellingham’s waterfront, a negotiation that may need to continue into the fall. Potential sticking points for Harcourt may be the size of the initial property offered (they had been interested in a site much larger than the pilot parcel offered by the port) and the purchase and sale agreement (Harcourt had initially offered a partnership with city and port interests). Also on the agenda may be an effort to restart development activities around the historic Granary Building, led by Commissioner Michael McAuley. In August of last year, commissioners agreed to accept bids for the former farmers’ cooperative building, an effort that has languished as port staff—always indifferent to the structure (at best!)—have focused on other matters. McAuley has expressed an interest in igniting what he considers an early action redevelopment opportunity on Whatcom Waterway.

Directly across the street from Army Street, the Granary could indeed jumpstart development interest, with a bid already in play. City Council learned on Monday that a geotechnical survey of the Army Street site appears favorable for construction. Yet the news comes as Council enters its budget discussions for 2015, a negotiation that may not include a budget for the city’s Public Development Authority or a salary for its director, Jim Long.

Long told Council members on Monday that an investment at Army Street could return revenues to the city that could be used to spur other developments in the Waterfront District. The mayor said such a development could occur without a PDA.

Council created the Bellingham Public Development Authority based on a model the City of Tacoma used to redevelop that city’s Foss Waterway Seaport, a business entity led by civic and business leaders from the community who are able to partner with private interests in more nimble ways than a municipal legislative body might. The Port of Bellingham declined to join the BPDA, dooming its mission, but the authority may be the best entity to guide a protracted redevelopment schedule absent the deep pockets of a developer like Harcourt. Call it “Plan B.”

Council also appears to have lost their way on a registration program for rental units in the city, appearing to jettison every beneficial part of the original proposal in favor of—basically—a telephone directory of landlords tacked on to the bare bones of a complaint-driven system. As several commenters at their meeting noted, there is already a directory of landlords, and there is already a procedure that allows tenants to complain of their shabby tenements. Thus, after more than two decades of work on this issue, Council appears on the threshold of glossing gossamer, cementing in place a “feel good” system already deemed inadequate.

Property managers and brokers, of course, joyously love it, as it compels them to do nothing. It does nothing to alter the power imbalance between the owners and sellers of private property and the 54 percent of city residents who rent from them. As commenters noted, tenants who complain get evicted and they get their references shredded.

The centerpiece of a responsible rental licensing program are audits and inspections that yield data that informs policy about the city’s rental housing stock. Even modest inspections put landlords on notice that they can no longer rely solely on the silence of their tenants on issues of public health and safety.

Over the past three years six fires have displaced nearly 20 renters in Bellingham. None of these properties had been reported to the city under the current complaint-based system since most of the tenants were unaware there was a problem and untrained to recognize one.

Council’s malaise on these issues, we’ll argue, is that—with notable exceptions—no member is pushing particularly hard in one direction, and there is no member at all pushing back hard the other way to yield dimension and stakes, even urgency, to their discussions. The public does arrive to scold and beat them, but generally only when they’re already on the precipice, having committed third and final to a mediocre plan. 

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