Promenade Park

City agrees to Whatcom Waterway park project

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A new park takes shape along the city’s central waterfront.

Bellingham City Council approved an agreement with the Port of Bellingham to use state grant money to create the park along the city’s central waterfront, a promenade intended to connect the city to its marine resources and showcase redevelopment of the former Georgia-Pacific mill site. City staff assured council that they could approve the grant funding to begin planning the park even as the master plan for the waterfront district is being reviewed by the Bellingham Planning Commission. The commission could complete their study of the waterfront district plan as early as this year; park planning will continue for another two years, city staff reported.

In 2012, the port and city jointly applied for grant funding from the state for waterfront redevelopment. Although the grant was applied for jointly, the port and city will split the amount so that each may proceed with particular aspects of site planning. As a result, the city received a $650,000 grant to design and construct the first phase of a park along Whatcom Waterway. The park will be accessible from Central Avenue, an area identified as an important gateway to the waterfront district.

The park site is a rectangle leading from Central Avenue along Whatcom Waterway. An early vision of the park calls for the hard industrial wharf and bulkhead along the waterway to be removed and the shoreline softened, allowing greater public access to the water. The park planning area includes the foot of the old Georgia-Pacific pulp digester, a tall narrow brick shell that houses tanks once used at the former mill to break wood chips into pulp for tissue paper. The inclusion of a portion of the building in the planning area triggered council concerns that park planning could foreclose on the future of that building.

At a March 25 council session, council member Jack Weiss objected to portions of planning moving forward piecemeal, before the master plan for waterfront development is completed. Weiss was concerned that certain assumptions foreclosed on and narrowed options before ultimate decisions had been made concerning the fate of structures such as the digester. Weiss was not present at Monday’s council meeting when the parking planning agreement was approved. Stan Snapp, also a frequent critic of piecemeal planning, was also not present for Monday’s vote.

Port officials have expressed skepticism about the ability of the 150-foot digester to survive seismic shock in the event of an earthquake, and have proposed partially dismantling the building to expose the original pulping tanks as historic set pieces for the central waterfront plan.

City Economic Development Manager Tara Sundin, a planning lead in central waterfront redevelopment, assured council members on Monday that the early phases of park planning provided by the grant may proceed without specific details of building sites and street layouts.

“If a change occurs through the Waterfront District master plan process to that park boundary, of course the park will be designed to reflect those changes,” Sundin said.

The design phase of the park will not be completed until 2015, after a land-use plan for the waterfront has been approved, Sundin explained. Actual construction of the park would not begin before then. Grant funding extends through 2017, with potential for extension in the event master planning for the central waterfront remains incomplete.

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