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The Gristle

Of message and messenger

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

OF MESSAGE AND MESSENGER: Former Mayor Dan Pike broke the first rule of Bellingham Fight Club last week. Promoting his special presentation at the Huxley College of the Environment lecture series, the Western Washington University program graduate criticized Mayor Kelli Linville for her failure to push back against the Port of Bellingham for the city’s interests in planning for the central waterfront.

“I took a year off speaking out on things because I did want to give the mayor a chance,” Pike said in an inartful interview with the Bellingham Herald. ”That year is up, and I’m not seeing a lot that’s happening.”

In his presentation to Huxley, Pike sketched his areas of concern—the low threshold of environmental cleanup standards at the former Georgia-Pacific mill site, the failure to adaptively reuse historic structures, and the economic folly of the former ASB wastewater treatment lagoon as the centerpiece of Port of Bellingham plans to redevelop the waterfront around a marina for luxury yachts. Pike criticized Linville for putting interagency cooperation ahead of community concerns.

“You can’t just look and say people are not getting along,” Pike said. “You have to say, ‘Why aren’t people getting along?’ I viewed my job as protecting the interests of the community—not because I like to get in fights with people.”

Yet… them’s fightin’ words.

The subtext of Pike’s remarks is he cares in a way Mayor Linville does not care. While he said he was interested in moving discussion forward productively, his comments inextricably and unavoidably raise the issue of whether his administration was better than hers in defending the city interests and moving waterfront planning forward.

Pike’s remarks sparked sharp response from city and port officials, who said the former mayor’s information was inaccurate and dated. Advancing the discussion, reigniting a stalled planning process were key goals in her administration, Linville said. After four years in limbo under the Pike administration, master planning documents have been completed and will be analyzed and commented on in public meetings in front of the planning commission this spring.

Pike was particularly critical of a land swap last October that consolidated properties in the port’s Marine Trades Area. In return, the city gained greater control over Cornwall Beach south of the former mill site. Pike said the city had exchanged the commercially important Colony Wharf along the central waterfront, and its rents, for an environmentally compromised section of fill. Yet negotiations had stalled under his administration as the city balked at a multi-million-dollar wharf improvement judged key to the port’s plans for the marine economy. The trade eliminated an outlay by the city and moved the property into the port’s area of special expertise; moreover, the agreement eased a sticking point in master planning for the central waterfront.

“He noted that the property swap wasn’t fair because the port got a high income producing site and the city got a contaminated site,” said Carolyn Casey, the port’s communications director. “Actually both sites have environmental issues that need to be remediated. The land swap did not cause any change in the legal environmental cleanup responsibilities of the port and city. And the Colony Wharf site in addition to cleanup costs has some substantial new marine infrastructure that is needed to keep it productive. Both the port and the city felt like the port was in best position to deal with the maritime uses.”

Similarly, the former mayor was critical of the continued insistence on the conversion of the ASB into a marina, a financially untenable fantasy that precludes higher and better uses and fundamentally weakens the master plan. Despite the apt criticism, when he was mayor Pike let slide the port’s malignant inclusion of a marina in every possible site imagining, including the so-called “no action alternative,” a fallback that presumes nothing will ever happen on those brownfields (apart from, evidently, the miraculous appearance of a $120 million marina), an assertion as dubious as it is improper. That bit of environmental policy and planning fraud received no challenge from the Pike administration.

Indeed, when asked by his audience to describe the primary stumbling block that prevents the city from asserting greater authority in sensible planning, Pike identified interlocal agreements signed by the two entities that cede control to the port. Yet these interlocal agreements and their updates are the selfsame documents Mayor Pike, in April 2009, gaslighted City Council to sign under duress and ginned-up deadlines, threatening imminent collapse and catastrophe if they did not agree. Shackles that burden the city were forged by its mayor.

Strikingly absent from the mayor’s remarks to Huxley College was any sense that his department heads had gathered under his leadership to coordinate and resolve the issues he raised. Indeed, he delivered several anecdotes about experts from outside his administration noting flaws in the master plan; at no point did he indicate his employees, hundreds engaged in public policy administration, did anything at his direction in response to them. When Cascadia Weekly asked about this, Pike declined to reply.

Pike the lone visionary of a better future and Pike the principal architect of the present hour cannot be rationally unwound from one another. That’s a shame, as the master plan wends its way in front of the Bellingham Planning Commission. His insights into the mucky mud of the waterfront are as important to understand as his role in setting that mud into stone.

SVCR Don McLean
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