The Gristle

Slack tide
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SLACK TIDE: Summer turns to autumn, the days grow short, and so too does the time remaining for the Port of Bellingham and City of Bellingham to complete their master planning and partnership agreements for waterfront redevelopment before the end of the year. Port and city staff report they’re close; and Mayor Kelli Linville and Port Commissioners are dedicated to a timetable that might place these documents for review in front of the Bellingham Planning Commission by the first of the year, initiating a public planning process that might carry through much of 2013.

In parallel, the port has initiated a market engagement plan for the waterfront district. The plan would gauge market interest in the site, with a formal request for development proposals going out to that market as early as February of next year.

Last June, the commission engaged Heartland, a Seattle-based consulting group, to help develop a strategy and an approach to help attract developer attention to the 137-acre site of the former Georgia-Pacific mill and adjacent properties. The consultants this week sketched a timetable to explore and engage market interest that would flow in parallel with the crafting of the master planning and development agreements being drawn up by the port and city staff.

“The objective is to attract high quality developers, investors and businesses to the Bellingham waterfront in a way that meets project economic goals and aligns with the draft Waterfront plan,” explained Lydia Bennett, director of the port’s business development efforts. Meeting that objective, the port and city will also be able to more finely tune their feasibility study on the economics of waterfront re­development.

“From our perspective, it’s ideal that these efforts should happen together,” agreed Tara Sundin, the city’s special projects manager. “One of the components missing, frankly, has been the interest of the development community” to help the city and port shape their master planning. That input becomes crucial as the city and port begin to plan and assign roads and public spaces.

Commissioners relented last month, approving a request for proposals from developers and architects to perhaps adaptively reuse the old Granary Building and adjacent properties on Central Avenue as an initial phase of the overall waterfront redevelopment. The port had earlier proposed demolishing the historic structure out of concerns they could not achieve preferred road alignments into the district, but agreed to public pressure that the effort to adapt the building should at least be offered.

As Heartland consultants begin to stir the cauldron of regional interests, the Granary site could be the launch point for other development deeper into the site.

At the same August meeting, commissioners approved a number of near-term environmental actions for the site, taking advantage of existing grants available through the Model Toxic Controls Act (MTCA), the state’s version of the federal Superfund program, approved by voters as an initiative in 1988. MTCA is funded by a small tax on the wholesale value of hazardous materials entering the state. About 90 percent of the tax revenues are by Washington’s petroleum refineries.

Included in these near-term actions is the authorization of more than $1.9 million to remove mercury contaminated soil from the caustic plume area of the old GP site. The plume and associated contaminants were pollutants left over from paper bleaching processes.  The state Dept. of Ecology in 2011 authorized the stabilization of those contaminants, including the removal of an an estimated 400 tons of mercury-contaminated soil and debris. Work could begin there as early as next year.

Additional improvements authorized by the port include $3.95 million to repair and reinforce the pier at Bellingham Shipping Terminal, and $7.42 million to complete the engineering design and coordinate ongoing work in the first phase of the cleanup of Whatcom Waterway.

The agency continues to press for the decommissioning of the old GP Aerated Stabilization Basin (ASB), the 37-acre wastewater treatment lagoon, with plans to partially dismantle the structure for a luxury yacht marina. With tideland leases set to expire with the state Dept. of Natural Resources, commissioners approved an option that could transfer those leases from Georgia-Pacific to the port authority or even cancel them with DNR entirely by as early as November of this year.

The Gristle has noted before that the ASB is a public asset that could form the nucleus of the City of Bellingham’s stormwater and wastewater treatment regimen for the central district and areas north. At the very least, it is a potential receiving area for toxics that cannot remain in place, an asset for any potential developer considering dropping a spade on the central waterfront. Yet here, potentially, the tideland leases could expire and foreclose options before those economic and environmental uses are explored.

It is just one of several pieces in play on the central waterfront.

“I believe that the few remaining structures on the old GP land could create a solid historic district but it doesn’t happen in a vacuum by a few loud voices crying out for results,” Port Commissioner Michael McAuley cautioned in a recent email to supporters of a more engaged plan. “This effort is big, millions and millions of dollars big. The kind of big that takes real effort, not just drive-by sniping that your commissioners aren’t doing the people’s work.

“I call on all of you who see the bigger picture on our waterfront to join in or remain engaged in making the next steps happen.”


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