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Granary Restored

Three proposals detail early waterfront redevelopment plan

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

To be or not to be, that is the question with the Granary Building, the hulking, abandoned former egg-and-poultry distribution center looming over the entrance to Bellingham’s central waterfront.

Uninspiring to a casual glance, the historic Granary nevertheless intrigues architects and engineers with its solid construction and potential for redevelopment. Eyesore or landmark, the building is rendered into every site plan for the proposed Waterfront District and Old Town master plan, suggesting it has durable value as a set piece to the district. At 40,000 square feet, It could become the first large-scale project in the unfolding plan.

Encouraged by public response to save the 85-year-old landmark, the Port of Bellingham Commission earlier this year officially requested development proposals. They got three, which the commission learned more about in July. The three plans envision markets and brewpubs on the ground floor, a variety of mixed uses above.

“What if the Granary could be more than just an outstanding remodeled building?” one of the proposals asks. “What if the Granary could be of benefit, real benefit, to the entire community? What if the Granary could be a project that would garner national, even International, recognition?”

“All three proposals are very solid and show the potential for the site,” Port Commissioner Michael McAuley said. “They’re also each remarkably similar to one another in what they propose, in the sorts of activities the building might support. That tells me the buildings form and location is going to produce a certain kind of public amenity.

“Regardless of what people think when they’re standing outside the building looking at rotten siding and broken windows, architects and engineers who tour the site think there is a lot of potential,” he said.

One proposal has been on the drafting table for ages. A second proposal takes elements of that earlier plan and runs with it, imagining it as a self-contained clean and green energy storehouse. A third proposal comes from Canada, from a company that has extensively refitted buildings of this type throughout lower British Columbia.

“We have had an interest in this property for a long time,” John Blethen admitted.

Blethen and James Willson first partnered in 1989 to purchase and rehabilitate the vacant Puget Power maintenance building on Ellis Street on the edge of downtown Bellingham, turning it into a model residence built to high environmental standards. Willson has extensive experience with properties in the area surrounding the Granary, including the the Arts District now home to the Pickford Film Center and two buildings of Logos Bible Software. He was project manager for the design and construction of the PFC on Bay Street.

Willson first approached the port regarding purchase almost nine years ago.

“In 2012, we held community meetings to gauge the level of popular interest and to publicize the building’s potential. Recognizing the dominant position this property will have at the north approach to the Waterfront District, we worked with Rick Mullen to design a strong exterior renovation concept,” Blethen said.

“An early, bold completion of this project will stand as the benchmark for projects to follow, drawing the community and visitors to our waterfront,” he said.

The road to Granary redevelopment looks a lot like Kübler-Ross scale of grief management, starting with denial, moving to bargaining and acceptance with a little anger and depression along the way.

“In January or early February 2012, we had a commission meeting with the department heads in the executive board room to discuss the Granary building,” McAuely recalled. “For a couple of hours, we discussed how we were going to tear it down. There were many ideas about how this might be handled. I wasn’t too excited about tearing it down, because I have long believed that building has a lot of potential. But in the course of that meeting, none of these really smart, well-paid people—including the commissioners—came up with any next steps on how to proceed with that removal. We spent two hours talking about something and decided to do nothing.

“I was tired of doing nothing,” McAuley said. “The general consensus in the room was, ‘We have to bring the public on board with tearing it down, and there is a process to that. And my response was, ‘If we have to get the public on board, I am just going to do it.’ So I made the first move to try to explain to the public why we should tear the building down, get a conversation started.”

That conversation, he recalled, triggered community efforts to rehabilitate the structure and a call for specific proposals on how that might be achieved.

“One of the things that hasn’t gotten a great deal of attention,” McAuley said, “is that if the building comes down, nothing can replace it. If it comes down, you have a hole. Meanwhile, you have 40,000 square feet of potential development space that could be quickly completed and put to use as an early action in the redevelopment of Bellingham’s waterfront.

“The building is not slated to come down any time soon, so it doesn’t slow anything down to at least let them take a shot at it, make a proposal,” McAuley said. “The commission agreed, let’s give it a shot.”

1. Willson-Blethen and Associates

Willson and Blethen imagine the Granary as a mix of retail, restaurants and offices. With financial details lacking in other proposals, Willson and Blethen estimate the cost of repairing the exterior of the building at approximately $2.5 million.

“We envision an exterior presentation similar to our illustration which we previously submitted to the port,” the Willson/Blethen plan details. “We would continue with the same level of design and visual interest, focusing on connectivity between exterior and interior spaces and a strong relationship with what will be the new pedestrian promenade. The building will be set up for a partial green roof, for solar voltaics, and for the use of stored rainwater for both graywater and irrigation systems. Likely square footage allotments would be 6,000 square foot restaurant, 6,000 square feet of retail, and 17,000 square feet of office/classroom. Tenants will be accepted as to provide a community of a self-supporting mix of interactive and viable businesses. A likely mix on the ground level would be a pub/restaurant, a personal watercraft store, and a bicycle shop.

“A history of local involvement combined with community ties and decades of real estate experience translates into a renovation of the Granary to a sharp, well-crafted business center and neighborhood anchor, brought forward to modern times with new technologies, high efficiency materials, and a striking new design,” they said.

The team estimates the complete site could accommodate more than 100 jobs.

“Parking would be laid out to allow convenient access to the waterfront as well as to the Granary building,” the team said. “Additional emphasis would be given to parking for bicycles both interior and exterior to the building. We recognize the community value of a visitors’ dock and a hand launch beach in the proposed neighboring park area and look forward to working with the Port and City to make that happen.”

In addition to the Granary, Willson and Blethen expect to participate in actively building a strong waterfront and Old Town redevelopment.

“We are particularly excited about development of the Central wharf and of the proposed park just to the south of the building,” Blethen said. “Together with the Granary, these combined projects will become an economic driver much as the Depot Market Square has revitalized Railroad Avenue. As locally known, committed participants we will be able to help move these projects forward. In the past, we’ve shown an ability to create public involvement and private investment on many of Whatcom County’s civic projects.”

2. Quay Property Management

Although not as specific as other proposals, the project envisioned by Quay could accommodate a public market mix of seafood and produce vendors, along with restaurants and amenities to access the Waterfront District by bike or watercraft. Upper floors could house offices, studios and classroom space.

“The strength of the British Columbia proposal is this company’s experience in redeveloping waterfront properties of this kind. They have a lot of experience in this area,” McAuley said.

Quay Property Management has built public markets in North Vancouver, Tswawassen and Nanaimo, located at respective B.C. Ferries terminals.

Quay’s concept for the adaptive reuse of the Granary Building will “pay homage to the history of the site. As the Washington Cooperative Egg & Poultry Association once occupied the Granary Building, with local producers coming together to provide fresh products to the area, QPM’s vision for a public market at this site will share similar value and purpose. A public market represents local products, and community gathering. This market development will be an organic convergence of living, working, playing and learning, and a destination for local food.

“The market concept would be centered on a unique mix of fresh, local products, retail shops, cafes and restaurants, and unique business services. Surrounding outdoor space and adjacent proposed pedestrian promenade can be used by QPM to program community festivities year-round. Indoor uses will spill outside with colorful florists’ displays, produce stands, cafe seating, and roving entertainment.”

McAuley said the concept of the Granary as a public market made good use of the building’s features, including large doors that could open directly on to a revitalized public wharf, but he cautioned that such a market might compete with other markets already in operation in Bellingham.

3. Tollhouse Energy and Zervas Group Architects

Perhaps the most ambitious proposal, the project detailed by Tollhouse Energy envisions using the inactive 48-inch water line built by Georgia-Pacific to serve Lake Whatcom water to industrial operations on the waterfront. At its peak, GP used 55 million gallons of raw lake water per day. The water line in turn would feed a hydropower turbine.

“That line is currently inactive,” Tollhouse/Zervas explained in their proposal. “Its closest point to the Granary is at the intersection of Bay and Chestnut, only 600 feet away. Our intent is to extend this waterline to the Granary, and connect it to a hydropower turbine. This turbine would generate 2 megawatts (MW) of electricity, enough to power over 2,000 homes. The waste heat from the turbine is enough to heat the Granary year round.

“What we are proposing is a project that can meet the Living Building Challenge,” the Tollhouse/Zervas group said. “To quote the International Living Future Institute, ‘The purpose of the Living Building Challenge is straightforward—it defines the most advanced measure of sustainability in the built environment possible today and acts to diminish the gap between current limits and ideal solutions.”

Others expressed skepticism the hydropower concept turbine would be feasible.

“At a draw of 55 million gallons per day, you’d drain Lake Whatcom in a decade without the Nooksack River diversion,” Blethen said. “The continued use of the diversion presents real problems for the City of Bellingham, related to Nooksack tribal water rights and phosphorous entering Lake Whatcom from the Nooksack River.” Blethen speculated that a combination of hydropower in the wet season might be offset by solar power when draws from the lake are inadvisable. The Tollhouse/Zervas design includes a partial green solar roof with capacity to store rainwater.

“We fully realize and understand the challenges that come with developing a small-scale hydropower project as a part of the Granary,” the Tollhouse/Zervas group said. “This will require the cooperation of and partnership with the state, the Lummi Nation, the federal government, and many other entities, including the Port and City of Bellingham. We realize that this will take years.”

Meanwhile, the group says, redevelopment of the Granary can move forward.

Similar to other plans, the Tollhouse/Zervas proposal envisions a fish market, a brewpub and retail on the ground floor. Upper floors could accommodate a mix of residential and office space, including the headquarters of Tollhouse Energy itself.

Tollhouse Energy is based in Whatcom County and engaged in the development, ownership and operation of green, environmentally friendly renewable energy facilities. The company is currently developing hydroelectric projects in British Columbia, Montana, and Washington, and continues to investigate and pursue other renewable energy opportunities.

Zervas Group is a 13-person firm based in Bellingham, founded in 1960. The architects specialize in sustainable design. They redeveloped the Firehouse Performing Arts Center in Fairhaven and the Jansen Art Center in Lynden, among numerous area projects. One of their principals, Michael Smith, is an award-winning architect instrumental in detailing the adaptive reuse potential of many structures on the old Georgia-Pacific mill site.

“We have the tenants and the financing ready for immediate development,” the group announced in their proposal. “We have received significant interest from a wide array of tenants. The ground floor will feature a fish market and a brew pub/restaurant. The rest of the ground floor will be a variety of retail spaces. The second floor will contain professional offices. The third, fourth and fifth floors will be residential, with commanding views over the harbor, the city, and the redeveloped waterfront. The basement will house the turbine, water treatment, and be used for storage of kayaks and other small, non-motorized watercraft by owners and rental companies.”

“The Tollhouse group actually have signed letters of intent for potential tenants,” McAuley commented. “I think that goes a long way in the eyes of the commission to suggesting how serious they are with their proposal.

“When I took Rick Faber of the Zervas Group through the Granary, his first words were ‘It’s amazing. When can we start?’”

“We need to start soon,” Blethen said. “The port has let the building deteriorate, and another season exposed to the weather could be harmful.”

McAuley admitted the port has no enthusiasm to spend money weatherizing the building.

“Despite all the interest, inside the port many people still view the building as a piece of crap,” he said. “I and others see potential.”

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