Wednesday, November 15, 2017
NAPKIN PLAN: While late ballots were flooding in countywide on Election Day, outgoing Port of Bellingham Commissioner Michael McAuley used one of his last opportunities to cast a different kind of vote—a vote of no confidence in a flawed process that has produced a startlingly different vision for Bellingham’s central waterfront than the vision promised.
“This isn’t even close to what we’ve been showing the public,” McAuley noted at the regular meeting of the commission. “I’m not necessarily upset there is a new plan, but there is no way,” he said, “that I’m going to advocate for this plan.”
The waterfront master development agreement was approved in 2013 by the port commission and Bellingham City Council after extensive public review. It was understood the 2013 plan could change when the master developer arrived. Harcourt Developments, the Irish development firm, issued their plan modifications in 2016.
McAuley explained that for more than a year the public had been shown a plan that calls for green space along the edge of Whatcom Waterway coupled with a “serpentine” park through the center of the waterfront site that would create connectivity through the downtown to parks and trails to the south. The commission advocated for this earlier plan.
“We have shown the earlier design with the serpentine park at almost every meeting for about a year,” McAuley said. “Then, with zero public input—nobody knows who was in the room when this new design was proposed, I don’t know who was in the room—came this new plan.
“My initial response was ‘this is a very interesting concept,’ and I think I was polite when I saw this, but upon reflection I actually started to get a little bit angry,” he admitted. “We had a developer that had agreed to something in 2016. In one work day, it was completely erased and replaced with something we’ve never seen before.”
Years late on completion of the Granary, late on the submission of a design for a second building in the waterfront district sub-area, Harcourt last year brushed all that aside with a proposal to begin work on an elaborate hotel and conference center. A year later, Harcourt returned with another plan to build student housing and an assisted living project. Each housing project, based on the sophomoric site sketches submitted by Harcourt last month, would be the size of a stadium—each building larger in scale than the entire Fairhaven urban center.
In early 2017, the cash-strapped Irish developer refinanced nearly $100 million in bank loans with companies involved in the development of its Belfast Titanic Quarter redevelopment. A quick sale of the Bellingham waterfront to the developers of lucrative specialized housing for students and the elderly could yield Harcourt additional working capital.
This alternative plan was driven by large niche market corporations D2 Architects, developers of assisted living complexes, and Valeo, developers of student housing. Under the proposal, Harcourt—which by contract can purchase the property at submarket rates—could flip parcels to these firms for easy cash flow. This may assist a financially stressed Harcourt but it appears to abandon much of what was desirable in the vision originally presented to the public.
The projects do not roar economic development or living-wage job creation, McAuley complained.
And they do not roar anything residents might expect in a revitalized urban center, and it all comes at the cost of the loss of connectivity which is a vital part of the waterfront the community was promised.
“This new design is not even close to what the public asked us to provide,” McAuley commented.
“What I see instead of a park is a plaza in front of a six-story assisted living complex—which doesn’t provide a lot of new jobs, and the ones that typically are created are not the sort of high-paying jobs that the public has asked the port to pursue,” McAuley observed.
Commissioner Bobby Briscoe supported McAuley’s concerns, and Port Executive Director Rob Fix apologized for the “cartoony” appearance of the recent site sketches. Yet Director Fix had earlier admitted he’d seen plans such as these weeks before they were shown to the commission.
Which is it, a careful and incremental plan months in the making? Or something crudely sketched on a paper cocktail napkin a few hours before it was enthusiastically cheered by port and city planners?
Look: The entire purpose of seeking a global master developer was to take advantage of private working capital for expedited world-class outcomes. It appears we may have instead a distressed developer who seeks to milk the Bellingham waterfront as a cash cow for other projects. Why support this?
In the days following the election, Michael Shepard moved ahead of incumbent Commissioner Dan Robbins in late returns. Shepard has continued to increase his lead in successive counts as ballots poured in from Bellingham precincts.
Shepard was unique among the candidates for suggesting that the very remoteness of the developer, their lack of an office or a representative agent in Bellingham, their lack of connectedness to the community, could be issues moving forward. He was clear that the community needs to continue to control the vision for waterfront redevelopment.
Together with Ken Bell’s win in the District 2 position, a change-up creates an almost entirely new commission, with not a single member responsible for the misguided, inverted plan for Bellingham’s central waterfront. With the arrival of two new commissioners perhaps comes a more circumspect approach to that plan.
Let’s hope new brains and renewed diligence will continue to echo McAuley’s concerns.