North by South

Four little stories on a big redevelopment project

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Port of Bellingham wants to divide the 74-acre Georgia-Pacific West mill site on the Bellingham waterfront into two separate cleanup areas, so the northern half of the site can be cleaned and redeveloped sooner.

An in-depth investigation by the port and state Dept. of Ecology shows extensive soil and groundwater contamination in 76 areas across the site, but may be considered in two separate and distinct areas, according to Brian Sato, Ecology site manager. The contamination was left behind by Georgia-Pacific West, which operated a pulp mill on Bellingham’s waterfront for much of the 20th century.

The port now owns most of the land and sampled the site as part of the step-by-step process required by the Washington Department of Ecology, which oversees the port’s cleanup work. All the data gathered by the port is laid out and described in a formal report known as a remedial investigation. Breaking the site into two sections requires a revision of an agreed order between the port and Ecology that defines the cleanup areas.

“With the contamination where it is on the site, we have a good opportunity to separate the site into two cleanup areas and advance cleanup and redevelopment on the northern portion,” said Brian Gouran, Port of Bellingham site manager.

On the northern end of the site where Georgia-Pacific West operated a pulp-and-tissue mill, the investigation found contaminants including metals, petroleum product, volatile organic compounds, dioxins/furans and acidic soil.

“The dioxin is minor,” Sato admitted, “but that word has a large stigma attached to it. But of all the things we have to fix in that pulp-and-tissue area, the dioxin is relatively minor in comparison to everything else.”

Where a chlor-alkali plant operated on the southern portion of the site, the investigation found mercury, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), petroleum hydrocarbons and alkaline soil. Ecology continues to oversee a cleanup and removal of mercury in that area. The work is expected to be completed by the end of the summer, Sato said.

“The port wants to accelerate redevelopment of the northern portion” he explained. “By separating the two sites, it allows cleanup on the northern piece to proceed quicker. From Ecology’s perspective, we don’t have an interest in land use or redevelopment, but anytime there is an opportunity to accelerate cleanup, we’ll look into that. We’ll gladly say ‘yes’ whenever anyone asks, ‘Can we clean up this contamination sooner?’

“In relative terms, the northern piece is simpler and easier to address,” Sato said. “If we did not separate the pieces, the cleanup on the northern portion would not happen until the southern piece was done. But let me be clear: Ecology’s condition for allowing the division is, we will not accept the mercury portion to be put on the back burner. We’re not horse-trading to delay the southern piece. We’re allowing the port to accelerate their schedule on the northern piece.”
In order to divide the site, Ecology and the port have to amend their legal agreement—known as an agreed order—to define two cleanup areas. Ecology is making the proposed amendment available for public review and comment.

Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville said it is important to bring potential developers into the conversation now, so the port and city can learn their response to plans before they are finalized by the Port Commission and City Council later this year.

“This is another key step forward in our work together to redevelop our downtown waterfront, bringing with it environmental cleanup and opportunities for jobs, parks and trails and other community amenities,” she said. “We’re excited to see what kinds of responses the request for proposals generates.”

In May, the port released its request for proposals (RFP) for the northern section of the site, which the agency terms the initial development opportunity, or IDO. At full build-out, the port estimates the Waterfront District will create about 6,500 new jobs and as much as 5.3 million square feet of development, with roughly 60 percent of that dedicated to commercial and industrial uses. For comparison, the City of Bellingham’s central business district contains about 3.5 million square feet of buildings developed over a century.

“The IDO will benefit from substantial near-term public investment in roadways, utilities, parks, and open space,” the port describes in an RFP prepared by Heartland LLC, Seattle-based real estate consultants. “The IDO’s edge along the Whatcom Waterway will be improved with parks and trails and public access to the water. Granary Avenue will be constructed through this area leading the public from the City’s existing central business district and into the heart of the Waterfront District.”

The division will create two large initial development areas of approximately 6.7 and 3.6 acres. The larger of the two development areas parallels the railway just below the center of the downtown. The proposed zoning in this area allows for buildings up to 200 feet tall, the port asserts, roughly the height of Bellingham Towers in the central business district. Parcel 2, the smaller of the two development areas, parallels Whatcom Waterway. The proposed zoning there allows for buildings up to 100 feet tall.

The port in turn seeks proposals that will employ all or most of the IDO, with a concentration on sustainability and job creation and that attempts to minimize parking and transportation impacts on the site.

The port assures potential developers that master planning will be complete with substantial roadbuilding finished on the site by 2016. According to planning documents, public money will pay for this infrastructure, at an estimated cost of $15.9 million, according to City of Bellingham Public Works. The transportation improvement plan (TIP) for the Waterfront District includes a new access point near the Granary Building, improvements to Cornwall Avenue and the Laurel Street entrance, along with a new Commercial Green Loop promenade at the center of the site. The construction of a roundabout at Wharf Street is scheduled to begin later this month, at a contracted cost of about $1.1 million.

“With the port moving forward with the environmental remediation and shoreline restoration, the city designing and building the major infrastructure and open space, and the programmatic regulatory approvals currently in the City’s formal review process, a developer can focus entirely on creating great places,” the agency asserts. “Infrastructure supporting the IDO will be coordinated between the port, city, and developer. Construction of the Whatcom Waterway Park and Granary/Bloedel/Cornwall arterials should commence by mid-2015 and is expected to take 12 months to complete.”

After the RFP response deadline, the port will bring together a team from the port, the city, the county, Western Washington University and its development consultants to evaluate responses and prepare recommendations to the Port Commission for consideration. Once the Commission selects a preferred developer or developers, the port will enter into exclusive negotiations to complete the transaction and bring a final development agreement to the commission for approval.

In 2005 the Port acquired 137 acres from Georgia Pacific. The site had served historically for logging and shipping operations and, since 1928, as a pulp, paper, and tissue mill. In addition to being the primary landowner, the port is responsible for the management of environmental cleanup of five of six sites within it listed by Ecology.

Those interested in reviewing the draft remedial investigation report and the proposed amendment to the agreed order can find them on Ecology’s website and at the Bellingham Public Library. Public comment on the report ends July 17.

2. University and Port renew partnership on the waterfront

Western Washington University took a major step closer to the Bellingham waterfront last week as both the university and the Port of Bellingham approved a memorandum of agreement that spells out how each could dedicate land to their shared waterfront development entity, Western Crossing Development, and facilitate the purchase of waterfront property by WWU.

“Having Western on the waterfront will add tremendous value to the Waterfront District because it will enhance Western’s connections with the community and will attract developer investment,” said Port Commissioner Scott Walker, who also serves on the board of Western Crossing. “Western is the second largest employer in Whatcom county, and that economic engine and student population has a large impact on local businesses.”

Last week, commissioners and Western’s Board of Trustees agreed to a memorandum of understanding (MOU), creating a broad framework agreement between the port and Western that defines how land can be moved into their shared development authority, Western Crossing Development, to enable development of the WWU presence in the Waterfront District. The Western Crossing Board unanimously approved the memorandum last week.

“We are pleased and excited about this critically important MOU that moves Western closer to being part of what will be a dynamic development of the Bellingham waterfront,” said Western President Bruce Shepard. “Western has been committed to a presence at the waterfront since community discussions and planning first began in 2006, and that commitment is being lived out by the acquisition of property in the Waterfront District. The eventual expansion of our campus to the waterfront creates possibilities for new partnerships and collaborations for Western and community partners.”

According to the MOU, the port will transfer ownership of six acres of Waterfront District land between the Downtown Development Area and the Log Pond Development Area into Western Crossing. In exchange, Western will transfer ownership of a 24-acre parcel of land at the intersection of Hannegan Road and Bakerview Road into Western Crossing. Once the Hannegan property is sold, the value of the Hannegan land sale will be assigned to the university and the value of the waterfront parcel will be assigned to the port within their shared Western Crossing Development entity.

In addition to Western acquiring a tract of land at the waterfront, which will allow for future development, potentially a public/private partnership, the memorandum also states that Western may lease building space from a developer in the 10.8-acre parcel the port is now offering for private development parcels. This would establish Western as an early tenant for the Waterfront District, officials say.

Large land developments across the country have demonstrated the value a university anchor tenant adds by attracting additional development, creating new jobs and increasing surrounding property values, said Port Executive Director Rob Fix. Examples can be found with Oregon State University on Portland’s riverfront and the University of Washington in Bothell and Tacoma. Where some developments must recruit universities, the port has benefited by having Western dedicated to being part of the Waterfront District for nearly a decade, he said.

Western participated in both the Waterfront Futures Group and the Waterfront Advisory Group and the university has undertaken a comprehensive evaluation of the development area and its educational programs with a goal of finding the best fit for waterfront-based programs that would result in stronger community and business connections. The memorandum anticipates Western completing a University Development Plan for the waterfront area by December 2015.

In 2009, WWU Trustees and the Port Commission approved creation of the nonprofit corporation and development entity, Western Crossing Development, so that a public/private waterfront development could move forward.

Western Crossing is jointly owned by the port and Western and they have created a capital account that will track the value of their contributions and those will be reflected in their percentage of ownership of the entity and its developments. The port and Western also have agreed that there will be a payment in lieu of property taxes as the property develops to help compensate for the site infrastructure development and cleanup costs.

3. Planning Commission approves master plan

The Waterfront District reached another milestone earlier this month when the Bellingham Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of the waterfront master plan to the Bellingham City Council. City Council is expected to begin its deliberations on the proposal in early August.

The Bellingham Planning and Development Commission on June 6 completed its review of draft regulatory documents and plans for the Waterfront District. The commission voted 7-0 to accept the proposal with a few amendments crafted in their discussions.

The commission worked through the Waterfront District proposal at 10 meetings during the past three months. City Council is expected to hold a public hearing on the recommendations in early August. The council is expected to consider the plans in a series of work sessions through the summer and early fall, with the goal of completing its work before the end of 2013.

Specific elements of the draft agreements have been reviewed by the Bellingham Transportation Commission, Historic Preservation Commission, the Parks Board and Waterfront Advisory Group, in addition to the Planning Commission’s review and recommendations.

4. Public Development Authority submits waterfront proposal

Bellingham City Council earlier this month urged Mayor Kelli Linville to enter into a non-binding agreement with the Bellingham Public Development Authority (BPDA) representing several land owners in a key development area adjacent to the Waterfront District. The agreement paves the way for a potential redevelopment of properties between Bay Street and Central Avenue across from the Granary Building in Old Town.

The BPDA governing board imagines assembling the properties and several other small parcels at the gateway to the District, consolidating them in a way that could provide parking and support infrastructure to assist redevelopment of both the central waterfont and Old Town, tying both more strongly into downtown.

The Army Street consolidation could provide as many as 300,000 square feet of building floor area, with approximately 400 parking spaces, BPDA Executive Director Jim Long said. Five of nine separate private property owners have signaled their interest in such an assembly in agreement with the BPDA, with potential to add a significant property along Bay Street. The city owns a central piece—the actual Army Street itself—and holds an option on another parcel in agreement with the Port of Bellingham.

“The buildings would be on the platform provided by the upper deck of an understory parking facility bringing building pads to grade with West Holly Street,” Long explained.


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