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The Gristle

The revision that’s always the same

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

THE REVISION THAT’S ALWAYS THE SAME: Working on a timetable that might complete the master planning of the city’s central waterfront by the end of 2013, Port of Bellingham and City of Bellingham officials last week presented the latest draft of their plans to the Waterfront Advisory Group. The citizens panel gets about six weeks to review these extensive, complex documents before they are submitted to the Bellingham Planning Commission for study early next year.

With her campaign promise firmly in mind to get city and port cooperation on waterfront planning back on track, Mayor Kelli Linville met with port staff last May to rekindle a stalled plan to redevelop the former site of the Georgia-Pacific mill and adjacent properties.

“We expect these proposals to go through a robust public input process beginning early next year,” Linville said. “When that time comes, the public will have available to them all the information they need to participate in decisions about how the waterfront will develop.”

During planning commission review, the proposal will be discussed in multiple work sessions and hearings held to seek public comment. The planning commission makes recommendations to City Council, who may adopt the final plan in agreement with the port’s Board of Commissioners.

The revised plan features a few important and welcome changes—notably, a more realistic reassessment of the anticipated buildout of the site and a refocus on potential industrial use. Original plans called for extensive mixed-use development of up to 6 million square feet, a risible number larger than the entire existing downtown building stock created over a century. The revised plan reduces this to 5.3 million square feet—unrealistic, but moving in the right direction.

In its original proposal, the port had also generously offered to deliver the most polluted, toxic section of the site back to the public for use as a park—the Log Pond area, where tons of elemental mercury and compounds were hosed into Whatcom Waterway through GP’s industrial processes, then capped with dirt in the open waterway. The revised plan wisely retains this area for industrial use with reduced public access, instead consolidating parkland around Cornwall Beach south of the former mill site. Earlier this fall, the port and city had swapped properties, including the Cornwall Beach area, in order to better define marine and municipal purposes.

Yet despite the few and welcome changes, the master plan is largely the same one we’ve seen again and again. And again.

The changes, in fact, expose the continued deficiencies of the master plan: A woefully low-threshold cleanup of the environment. A generally thoughtless apportionment of parks and public spaces, with little interconnectivity between them. A street grid that fails to link with the downtown in a sane or graceful way. And, as its overcooked centerpiece, a large marina for luxury yachts—built with $80 million of the 99 Percent’s money, for use by the gloating 1 Percent—a centerpiece rendered economically untenable by the shock and reordering of financial markets and market imperatives in 2007.

Despite that meltdown, and despite dozens of hours of public meetings and hundreds of pages of public commentary, it is stunning just how little the plan has changed, how little it has been influenced by public wisdom and the optics of hindsight. The meal keeps being sent back to the kitchen, and keeps coming back hash.

A decade ago, when the Georgia-Pacific mill was still operating, the company contributed more than $1 million a year to the local economy in taxes, wages and shared infrastructure costs. When the mill closed, the city did not immediately trim its budget by a commensurate amount but shifted costs to businesses and homeowners. Still, the company continued to pay tax on the property.

In 2004, GP was negotiating a much more extensive cleanup plan with the state Dept. of Ecology when the port stepped in and aggressively foreclosed on and seized the ASB wastewater treatment lagoon. The agreement that transferred the ASB and adjacent properties to the tax-exempt agency effectively removed the property from city tax rolls.

The port’s plan for luxury yachts and condos will collect fees and rents that will lard the port. But the property will likely continue to remain off the city tax rolls for many years, longer if the port’s plan is untenable. Taxpayers bear that burden.

Cracks in the facade began to appear with the outside hire of a real port guy, Charlie Sheldon, to lead the agency in 2010. Sheldon proposed subtle shifts in port operations, moving key staff and focused on finding near-term tenants for port properties. Fantasy marina development shifted to the background as Sheldon reawakened the agency to a marine reality, including a freshly invigorated plan for the fishing community. Small wonder, he was loved by port tenants unused to vigor and a square deal from the agency.

On the job less than 18 months, Sheldon was forced to resign.

The architects of that disgrace freshly cemented their hold on their fantasy plan for the central waterfront earlier this month by promoting the commission’s creature, Deputy Director Rob Fix, to permanently replace Sheldon, ensuring their dementia cannot be unwound by a fresh, outside perspective. In effect, what the agency has done to the public for the past decade, they have also done internally: Double down, again and again, on the “Bellevue Plan.”

Yet reality seeps in, and continues to seep in. Fantasy marina construction continues to recede into the uncertain future. Practical industrial focus slowly replaces visions of high-rise condos.

Sheldon helped move the plan by one inch. Perhaps planning commissioners can move it one more.

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