The Gristle

Two steps forward, one back

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

TWO STEPS FORWARD, ONE BACK: Bellingham City Council this week heard the latest on redeveloping the central waterfront; in the same week, Port of Bellingham commissioners learned more about potentially interested parties that may be playing an expanded role in that development.

In council’s Monday afternoon committee, city and port staff delivered an update on Waterfront District master planning, setting the stage for a public hearing on the master plan documents on Aug. 5 and on into the fall. Council learned more about the revised phasing of redevelopment, which focuses near-term development on approximately 37 acres nearest to Old Town and the downtown core, the site of the old Georgia-Pacific tissue mill proper. The port jumpstarted this activity by applying to the state Dept. of Ecology to split the site, pushing redevelopment of the more extensively contaminated section near the Log Pond and former chlor-alkali facility to a later phase of development. Port officials reported to council that they have revised their original concept to re-zone the Log Pond area to mixed use and instead plan to keep the section in industrial use.

As part of their deliberations, council will consider many of the same planning documents reviewed and commented upon earlier this year by the Bellingham Planning Commission, including the Waterfront District sub-area plan, which functions much like a neighborhood plan, together with development regulations and design standards. In addition, council will consider additional documents, including new agreements with the Port of Bellingham that will replace (and perhaps improve) deficient interlocal agreements signed in 2005 that stripped the city of much of its planning oversight and crippled the city’s ability to recover some of the costs of intrastructure through instruments like impact fees and property tax.

On Tuesday, port commissioners learned additional details about a number of development proposals they’ve received focused on 10.8 acres in and around the Granary Building, inside that early phase development area sketched out by the port. The Granary area is key to successful redevelopment of the waterfront, guiding the location and shape of access into the Waterfront District, and serving to integrate and link development with Old Town and downtown Bellingham.

“Several of the proposals colored a little outside the lines” of what planners have proposed for the site, Port Executive Director Rob Fix told City Council on Monday. “Some of them colored a lot outside the lines.

“This is not necessarily a bad thing,” Fix said, noting that the involvement of interested private developers has been the piece missing to help shape the master plan.

“We know this is just the beginning of a conversation with developers because we anticipate proposals will continue to be shaped and refined as we move forward,” Fix said.

The port received eight development proposals. Three were specific to the Granary Building, incorporating a market and public space. Three were from master developers seeking the entire site, including the developers of Portland’s Pearl District. Two were for specific projects within the site that could be incorporated by master developers.

“The decision to go out to the marketplace and look for development interest before the master plan was adopted was a strategic decision that the port and city made together,” Port Director of External Affairs Carolyn Casey explained. “The reason for this is to gauge developer interest in the site and, even more importantly, get developer feedback about the plan we are bringing forward and see what they could add to the conversation.”

Yet, as the city and port rush piecemeal into drafting development agreements and permits, they gloss fundamental criticisms of the plan. The Bellingham Planning Commission approved 5-2 last week staff changes to shoreline uses that are at odds with the Shoreline Master Plan the City of Bellingham crafted in association with the state Dept. of Ecology. In its search for “flexibility” in shoreline uses, the city proposes revised uses that are inconsistent with the governing SMP.

Barry Wenger, the retired Ecology guru who assisted the city in creating the SMP, warned the commission the proposed changes would not pass muster with his agency.

“From a procedural standpoint, the ‘draft’ Waterfront District sub-area plan has no bearing on the adopted SMP and, in fact, must be brought into conformance with the SMP in several ways,” Wenger told commissioners. “There is no justifiable reason to allow encroachment of non-water-oriented light industrial uses into the existing Recreation Use shoreline designation.”

The Gristle scoped some of the problem last week, noting the sub-area plan proposes multiple, conflicting uses on the shoreline that must, in the event of conflict, be resolved in favor of habitat, according to a May letter from DOE. Squeezed out are public areas for recreational uses. The port and city propose an additional squeeze from the other direction by opening the shoreline to commercial or industrial uses along the shoreline that are inconsistent with the marine environment, again squeezing down promised parks and trails.

Similar concern is expressed in another way by Lummi Nation, in unresolved complaints to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the port’s plan to clean Whatcom Waterway is insufficient in restoring habitat.

These complaints are not insignificant, and not against parties that can be triflingly brushed aside, as Lummi complaints are catalogued and responded to by Ecology. Indeed, port negotiations with the tribe have stalled cleanup of the inner waterway for at least a year—the very Phase I property where the port has sought early development proposals. But the more important consideration is the city should not be aiding port mischief to encroach on the shoreline. The port’s mission is collecting cash for the port, period. The city needs to respond to a higher standard.

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