The Gristle

Teased and Squeezed

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

TEASED AND SQUEEZED: Cheers to the Port of Bellingham—and Port Commissioner Michael McAuley in particular—for opening a portion of the city’s central waterfront to this year’s Independence Day celebration, an inspiring declaration of personal liberty.

More than 500 ’hamsters crept along the hard pier of Whatcom Waterway to watch the city’s annual fireworks display at Zuanich Point Park, many visiting for the first time since the site came into public ownership. They entered from Central Avenue along the Granary Building and moved out beyond the chain link fencing that has kept the old Georgia-Pacific mill site enclosed for more than a decade.

“We are finally getting to the development stage, so it’s a great time to start some modest public access projects,” McAuley said. “We hope folks will enjoy watching the fireworks from this new vantage point.” McAuley thanked Port Executive Director Rob Fix for making the access happen.

Friday, July 19, and the Friday following, Kelli Linville will lead the curious on a remarkable lunchtime tour around the GP Aerated Stabilization Basin (ASB)—a wastewater treatment lagoon designed for industry that’s roughly equal in size to the city’s downtown core. At the far end is a unique view of the Bellingham cityscape seen by very few.

Still later in the month and into August, the port authority will sponsor early evening walking tours of the site, including the 10.8-acre property now being offered to private developers.

McAuley expressed an interest in opening more areas of the site to the public, in particular sections of Cornwall Beach south of downtown.

It’s terrific outreach to re-ignite public interest in the central waterfront; however, the Gristle can’t help but wonder if—now that most officials have surrendered to the years of gaslighting and bullying bait-&-switch—the Port of Bellingham now feels confident enough with everything it wants and can at last release its iron grip around the throat of the hostage. Word trickles out from the Bellingham Planning Commission about deep, private unhappiness with the port’s plan for the central waterfront, yet the planning commission still unanimously approved the plan, frankly provided with little other option. The plan is rife with regulatory certainty for developers, regulatory uncertainty (“flexibility”) for public access and public amenities. So it has gone, at every step, on the final march to Bellingham City Council this fall. The port and city together and long ago foreclosed on any deviation from a 1970s-era development plan crafted by the folks who built Bellevue.

Certainly, nothing is happening in opening the site to limited public access that could not, and should not have happened long ago (it’s public property!).

Apocryphal is the story that the 150-foot tall digester building will be the last to come down as placeholder because, first, it provides scale and precedent to the size of buildings permitted in the master plan, a wall of 150- to 200-foot tall structures serving a boutique economy; second, because it blocks a view the agency doesn’t want residents to get too used to seeing. As with the digester, so too perhaps is public access to the site, given on the eve it will be taken.

In 2004, port commissioners packed the 1,500-seat Mount Baker Theatre to deliver a preliminary vision of what could be possible on the central waterfront. A decade later, the planning commission last month approved the master plan to an empty room.

In between were a few moments when oxygen was pumped back into the hostage: When alternative, competitive plans were presented by community activists. When the former mayor challenged baseline port assumptions in public forums. When Labor and environmental movements joined forces and called for a higher, better vision for the site. It’s no accident these brief sparks of enlivened public interest share similar characteristics.

Largely ignored throughout is Lummi Nation’s continued insistence to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, still on record, that “Lummi Nation is not satisfied with the cleanup alternatives currently being considered by the Port of Bellingham to address both habitat impacts and contamination associated with the industrial development along portions of Bellingham Bay.” These concerns were expressed in 2006, emphasized again in 2008 and 2009, and again in a letter to the port in 2010, demanding a greater need for environmental cleanup and habitat restoration. Testament to the potency of Lummi Nation, cleanup of the inner waterway has been delayed until tribal concerns are negotiated.

These concerns were expressed in a slightly different form in a letter to the City of Bellingham from the Dept. of Ecology in May, as the state environmental agency worked through the draft Waterfront District Master Plan.

“As the plan does not provide detail on how the future public access areas will be developed[!], it is important that future park plans consider the necessary balance between public access and habitat protection,” Ecology warned, noting that many park areas have also been set aside for habitat restoration, “setting up the potential conflict between protection of shoreline ecological function and public access.” When the two are in conflict, the latter must give way.

Reading between the lines, habitat restoration may nibble only at the “flexible” public access component of the plan, while the “certain” private property component remains assured and guaranteed.

The Bellingham Planning Commission this week will consider changes to the city’s Shoreline Master Plan (SMP) that could exacerbate this squeeze, amending shoreline development standards to allow for increased building heights while decreasing the shoreline buffer, altering both the type and intensity intensity of shoreline uses.

Get involved in your waterfront.

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