More subdued than excited
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
MORE SUBDUED THAN EXCITED: Inevitable perhaps, Bellingham City Council this week surrendered to the Port of Bellingham’s lamentable plan for the central waterfront. A glum crowd, bleeding defeat, had by that hour largely deserted. Fully a third of war-weary council members were eager to ink an agreement, any agreement. Another third seemed oathbound, apprehensive about passing along the plan and its nuanced discussion to fledgling members arriving in January who are not immersed in the history and issues related to the waterfront. The last third were, despite all anxiety, quite at a loss to know how to meaningfully fix the mess without unraveling the whole. Their dilemma, of course, was by design.
When one side in a negotiation wants their way as the bedrock fiat of their bargaining position and the other side wants very much to be a pleasant and accommodating partner as their central organizing goal, the outcome of negotiation is preordained—it’s only a question of how deeply the tank treads will thrash through the marshmallow.
The agreement assures the port and developers are made financially whole through the commitment of millions of dollars of city taxes for a plan no citizen in Bellingham generally or particularly loves. It is further a plan that, in the end, provides token assurance of achieving the lofty sorts of public goals promised to ’hamsters at the outset. The “good” is spongy and aspirational; the “bad” is baked hard into the core guarantees of the plan.
In the end, City Council failed in its most crucial role to represent the citizens of Bellingham and protect their interests.
A decade ago, nearly 20 governments and agencies were agreed on a plan that would involve the deep pockets of Georgia-Pacific (now owned by multi-billionaire Koch Industries) and the federal Army Corps of Engineers to achieve a more thorough cleanup of Whatcom Waterway and the inner harbor. The Port of Bellingham, without any public process, hijacked that agreement and swapped in their own plan, which released deep pockets from additional financial contribution. The final ransom approved by council this week rewards the hijackers, with piddling guarantees for the well-being of the hostage.
Half a decade ago, Bellingham City Council was assured they would have final say on the details of the plan. This assurance set in motion a series of assumptions—that council needn’t be involved in the minutiae of planning, that the various set pieces of the plan were fluid and capable of revision, that they needn’t sweat the interim details because the package would arrive to them malleable for meaningful policy discussion. Half a decade later, staff insisted that things in the plan had been in the plan for so long there was no changing them now, cemented in place there was no point in questioning them now. Surely had they known this, council policymakers would have insisted on being more directly involved earlier. The entire landscape of council’s expectations and involvement with the master plan amounts to a cruel bait-&-switch.
The bait-&-switch continued throughout council’s deliberations through the fall.
The degraded condition of the former GP mill site, a deserted brownfield riddled with neurotoxins, essentially means that any activity along the waterfront represents a net improvement. Thus is straw spun to gold. Planning staff selectively juxtaposed this dismal horizon against the lofty yet inconvenient goals crafted through hundreds of hours of public involvement—the creation of living-wage jobs, the remediation of habitat, the preservation of generous public space—to demonstrate that something, no matter how woeful, was better than nothing. In that case, why plan at all?
Port and city staff were adamant throughout that (mythical) potential developers required “certainty” in their entitlements and assurances of public subsidy. The plan also, staff were certain, required “flexibility” in regards to public expectations of access and marine restoration. Not knowing who said developers are, staff sure knew what they wanted. Sadly, the banging of “certainty” against “flexibility” only accumulates in one direction: The developer is bestowed all the binding shalls, the public is glossed with the aspirational mays; ironclad assurances accrue for the developer, none for the public; continued largesse for the developer is fueled by costly outlay by the public.
In perhaps the most egregious example of imbalance, the agreement cooks the value of roadway and shoreline transfers provided to the port by the city at $8 per square foot (the value of land zoned industrial), or $3.78 million; meanwhile, the city must purchase back its parks and open space from the port at an upzoned rate of $25 per square foot (the value of land upzoned to multi-use), or $5.79 million. What the port gets to buy cheap, the city must buy back dear. And this expensive transfer occurs only after city taxpayers have already invested additional millions of dollars in road and infrastructure improvements that allow the port to flip the property to a private developer.
Recent history assures us Bellingham City Council would have never negotiated away assurances of development standards and impact remediations with any known and present developer. Yet they negotiated thus with the port, who is simply acting as a screen and a broker for some unseen fictional developer. Importantly, it is a master developer of the port’s particular imagining: A hackneyed developer whose greed and lack of civic engagement must be accommodated at all costs, who’ll tolerate little but race-to-the-bottom standards of the lowest denominator, an unmasked mirror of the port’s own dark soul.