Wednesday, November 21, 2018
LEFTOVER TURKEY: A year has passed; and is it too soon to predict that no changes will be submitted to the waterfront master development agreement in 2019 and that yet another year will pass with waterfront redevelopment still in a coma?
Harcourt Developments, the Irish development firm selected half a decade ago by the Port of Bellingham Commission, returned to town in late 2016 with a grand vision plan to develop the portion of the central waterfront sub-area between the still incomplete Granary Building and the historic Boardmill building deeper into the site. That plan included a generous serpentine park through the site. Harcourt returned again in late 2017 with another modified plan that was widely ridiculed both for the substantial changes proposed for what would be developed but also for the functional elimination of the generous park. This 2017 proposal was dubbed the “Napkin Plan” for its conceptual sloppiness and lack of design aesthetics.
“The proposed 2018 amendment to the Waterfront District Sub-Area Plan, was prepared after a series of additional public meetings and public input opportunities, additional SEPA analysis, and will include additional public input during the Planning Commission and City Council review process,” the port declared in its starry-eyed update. The update gathers dust on a shelf, because nothing was submitted to the city in 2018. Nor is it likely to occur in 2019.
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 in 2016 brushed all that aside with a proposal to begin work on an elaborate hotel and conference center. A year later, Harcourt returned with yet another plan to build student housing and an assisted living project. Each housing project, based on the sophomoric site sketches, would be the size of a stadium—each building larger in scale than the entire Fairhaven urban center.
Both of these latter visits by the Irish developer served a particular requirement and timetable—proposals to modify the master development agreement would need to be docketed by the end of the year in order to be considered by the Bellingham Planning Commission in the spring of the following year. They also served to maintain the illusion that the distant foreign developer remained actively engaged and dedicated to the redevelopment of Bellingham’s central waterfront. In short, each fanfare visit bought Harcourt an additional year of nonperformance.
Neither proposal was ever docketed, and the fact that Harcourt in 2018 didn’t even bother to return in order to maintain the façade of their interest does not bode well for projects moving forward in 2019.
The waterfront master development agreement was originally 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. Yet that 2013 plan has not been updated and remains the only accepted plan for the central waterfront that has been officially submitted.
To their credit, the port commission earlier this month unveiled a new plan to revitalize the Bellingham Shipping Terminal by envisioning the site as a “Foreign Trade Zone,” where cargo handlers might store goods without having to pay United States import duties and taxes. It sounds vaguely piratical, but at least it reveals some nimbleness of thought in how to employ Bellingham’s woefully under-utilized waterfront. However, that plan and the continued buildout of the industrial Marine Trades Center west of the waterway continue to be at odds (and in substantial conflict) with a vision of a revitalized post-industrial waterfront with dense commercial and residential amenities.
The port’s plan for the central waterfront remains upside down.
The master development agreement was conceived without the advice of a master developer. And the entire purpose of seeking an international master developer was to take advantage of their private working capital for expedited world-class outcomes. None of those things seem to be within the interest or abilities of Harcourt—now years late in the completion of the Granary Building, a project that should have been completed in no more than 18 months.
“At full build-out,” the port projected in 2013, “the Waterfront District is projected to have up to 6,500 new jobs and up to 5.3 million square feet of development.” Their claim was ludicrous overreach, but even smaller projects expected for completion by 2017 have not even begun. In milestones set by agreement with Harcourt, a second building on the site was supposed to be well underway at this point, with a third project set to begin no later than 2022.
The City of Bellingham has meanwhile met its near-horizon contractual obligations, cutting a major road into the site and completing a very attractive and serviceable public park. Any additional outlays on the city’s part would trap assets better spent elsewhere, in parts of the city that are bursting with development energy.
A division of the Western Washington University Planning & Resources Council—the Waterfront Ideation Team—recently threw up their hands in defeat that nothing whatever was in motion for a university presence on the waterfront, and their discussions were mostly wasted.
This turkey’s gone bad.
The time has arrived for a new plan—perhaps one that is synchronous with the soft levels of light industrial development and parkland already underway along Whatcom Waterway—but it may take effort to remove the hands of Harcourt from the current plan.
The commission has completely changed hands since the waterfront plan was first adopted, and City Council nearly so. Perhaps next year’s local elections will include renewed debate about the future of Bellingham’s underutilized waterfront.
UPDATE: The Gristle’s gloomy holiday prediction that little was likely to change on the city’s central waterfront in 2019 was challenged by the City of Bellingham. Harcourt Development’s proposed changes to the waterfront district sub-area plan were docketed and are scheduled to be presented to the Bellingham Planing Commission in late January.