Cashing Out, Cashing In
Wednesday, October 25, 2017
CASHING OUT, CASHING IN: Of the many things upside down with the plan for Bellingham’s central waterfront (and there are many things), perhaps the most critical at the moment is that the plan is in the hands of the wrong steward. The Port of Bellingham is not the appropriate steward even in its best aspects. The agency’s sole and fundamental role of economic development, the business lens through which the port gauges the value of all things, is incompatible with the broader goals and the balancing of interests, the generosity with public space, that must go into the development of a city center.
In essence, City knows how to build City, has experience building City. Port believes its public duty is discharged upon the sale of a property to private business for private business.
In its lesser aspects, the port is the least transparent, the least responsive of our three major local governments—in part a consequence of its very mission of contracts and real transactions with private business. And because it is a countywide agency, port politics are subject to the schism of the urban/rural divide. Yet the waterfront of a city is entirely a municipal enterprise informed by urban values.
City Councils represent City, and the values of city residents. Yet Bellingham voters make up only about 37 percent of the county electorate for the port race.
We have upon us a port race with commissioners elected by majorities outside the city, who are about to make the most important decision and commitment in the next 100 years of the future of the City of Bellingham. This is not a criticism of county voters. It is a reveal of the weakness of a municipal enterprise.
Harcourt Developments principals were in town last week, the Irish developers selected as master developers for the waterfront district. And they brought with them yet another revision to the waterfront plan.
In 2013, after two years of public process, city and port leaders approved the master development plan, the vision for Bellingham’s central waterfront. The master development plan was understood to have a weakness, it was crafted without the guidance of a master developer—and it was understood that when the actual developer arrived, changes would need to be made to that plan. But the 2013 plan was also the public’s guarantee, changes to it would require public review and therefore the agreement served as assurance that the public would have a say in outcomes, the final authority on waterfront redevelopment.
In October 2016, Harcourt did indeed reveal a revised vision plan for the central waterfront. But they did not formally submit a revised plan for planning review and public process. Their revision canted city streets 45 degrees from the 2013 plan, along the axis of the city’s original platted street grid. Their plan called for a generous serpentine park to flow through the city to tie public space at the Granary to city parklands south. And their plan called for the relocation of the BNSF rail line against the bluff, yielding more unobstructed property in the center of the waterfront.
It was an intriguing plan, with much in its favor. But it was never formally submitted, and therefore never received a public review. Nevertheless, city and port staff treated the revision as authentic and began to replan city streets along the proposed grid, stubbing them out for properties aligned along that axis. This was the murmuring of a fait accompli, a design decision that required a public review that did not receive a public review.
Harcourt returned this week with another revision to their vision plan.
Port and city staff treat the revision as iterative and incremental. And to them, familiar with these plans, it is. But to the public, who’ve been given no opportunity to review and comment on the proposed 2016 revision and are now scheduled to be granted scant opportunity to review and comment on 2017 revisions to the revision, changes are not at all iterative and incremental. We’re now about four versions past where the public believed its waterfront plan stood in 2013 and not a single meeting has been convened to invite the public to talk about that.
Gone is the serpentine connective park, replaced by a dogleg—a disjointed series of parcels cut through with streets that appear to serve more as building setbacks than public spaces. Gone is any plan to move the railway, which means a good portion of what’s left of that park serves as a blast buffer to BNSF oil trains. Traffic flows and building densities, rather than an interconnectedness and generosity of public space, are the governing principles of design.
The consensus of the port commission is that we’ve waited too long already to hand the property and the vision over to Harcourt, and the port’s duty is discharged when the property is sold. That is the highest aspiration of an agency focused solely on economic development and return on investment. They advocate for an extremely short public review that will end in permits issued at the earliest opportunity. Gone in this fast-tracked schedule, of course, is opportunity for the public to get its head around multiple versionings that have occurred since 2013.
COB’s imperative in this upside down wonderland is to be an impassive partner, and not to get in the way of what is proposed. And yet COB is the only transparent, responsive balancer of competing municipal goals and interests in the entire equation—the only entity with some stake in outcomes beyond cashing out or cashing in.
Given this, it is deeply distressing to hear the current three-member commission in agreement that their driving goal is to sell the property and get out of the way as speedily as possible. And to know with certainty that, in this election, two of the candidates who may make up the plurality of a new commission in 2018 feel the same. The consensus of this group is that the site needs fewer controls, more unfettered free market, at the very moment when the last, gasping opportunity of public control, the vision the public was promised, is surrendered.
Who loves the 2013 plan? Nobody. Who is prepared to defend the 2013 plan? Nobody. Yet the 2013 plan is the only one that came at the end of an extensive public process, in which the public was specifically invited to dream. The concrete has been poured into a unfamiliar form, and now is about to be set in stone.