Old Town, Old Story
Wednesday, January 23, 2019
OLD TOWN, OLD STORY: Bellingham’s past keeps colliding with its future; and nowhere so consequentially than on its central waterfront, where resource extraction industries and associated waste have created a barrier to the public for a century. Those products or their vestiges are still there, competing with and foreclosing on other uses.
Old Town, the original locus for white settlement on Bellingham Bay, is central to the city’s comprehensive plan for infill and an anticipated receiving area for much of the city’s projected population and job growth over the next 20-year planning horizon.
Old Town is bordered by Bellingham’s downtown and waterfront districts to the south and the Lettered Streets and Columbia neighborhoods to the east and north. It is interspersed with vacant land, retail and industrial businesses, homeless services, a small residential population, and large parks and a fish hatchery.
Yet it is also beset on all sides by neighboring challenges that discourage that growth.
Seaward is a vacant and minimally remediated industrial brownfield and adjacent benighted waterway. Across the waterway is a cluttered (but promising) marine trades center. On every side side is an old or current garbage dump, railyard, recycling center or wrecking yard. And in recent years, Old Town has also become a receiving area for a growing homeless population—due to the proximity of the Mission and, frankly, the fact that not much else is happening in this portion of the city center.
When she took office, Mayor Kelli Linville dissolved the nascent Bellingham Public Development Authority that was charged with sparking development interest in Old Town, confident her own planning and community development staff could do that work.
But it has been challenging—and slow, given the comparative pace of other development in the city; and it’s clear one or more of those neighboring deficits must give way to ignite the potential of Old Town.
This week the city announced a tentative agreement to relocate Northwest Recycling out of Old Town, transitioning the area from light industrial to an urban village.
As the city notes in a press release, Parberry’s Inc., which operates Northwest Recycling in several blocks in Old Town, has expressed interest in relocating its business to a more suitable long-term location and redeveloping their Old Town properties.
The development agreement with Parberry’s, Inc. proposes to relocate Northwest Recycling to a suitable property in or close to Bellingham, and the city would agree to invest in public infrastructure in Old Town to support redevelopment of Parberry properties. The agreement with the city would ensure the move of the business and redevelopment of the properties over several years.
In addition to providing public infrastructure, the city would provide Parberry’s an option to purchase city-owned property adjacent to Whatcom Creek.
According to the agreement, the City would invest approximately $2.5 million in staged infrastructure. The estimated cost to Parberry’s Inc. to relocate Northwest Recycling is $10 to $15 million.
“Parberry’s owns about 46 percent of the developable property in Old Town, which is envisioned as an urban village—a community where people live, work and play—with eventually between 860 and 1,120 housing units and up to 400,000 square feet of commercial space,” the city notes in a press release. “But dominant current use is a light industrial operation, Northwest Recycling, which has some impacts such as truck traffic and noise that make it incompatible with pedestrians and residents. Old Town’s proximity to downtown and the waterfront makes it an ideal candidate to be redeveloped for more residential density.”
The news is certainly welcome for revitalization of Old Town; but with a price tag of nearly $3 million to steer the interests of a private land owner, the proposal must surely serve as a cautionary warning to other plans that will unfold in coming weeks.
In particular, the Waterfront District Master Plan—unrevised since it was adopted in 2013—is docketed for revision and review by the Bellingham Planning Commission.
The essential proposal is to (again) realign the street grid to make our public waterfront amenable for purchase by a private entity. The city and port have already spent upwards of $60 million on 237 acres of consolidated waterfront, one of the largest unbroken tracts of urban marine property in public ownership on the West Coast. Harcourt Developments—the Irish developer that has severely underperformed in other projects on the waterfront—proposed the changes in consultation with the D2 Group based in Texas.
The direction seems clear: Harcourt can exercise its option to purchase the property under an agreement with the port at below-market rates and, with the new alignment, flip the property to the Texans for a tidy profit. The port is made financially secure, but the public has lost local control of its consolidated waterfront to another distant entity. Where some transparent effort was made to acquire Harcourt as a master developer, some performance metrics applied to their work, no transparency at all has accompanied the D2 Group taking creative control over the property. Without a nickel’s return on the public investment, they are the new masters of this master development.
D2’s conceptual illustrations have almost no familiarity with facts on the ground, and they gloss all of the very real and consequential incompatible uses of our post-industrial waterfront.
Much more can and must be said about this proposal, but an essential concern is this: If it costs $3 million to nudge Parberry’s—with deep local roots and a commitment to the community—what might the future cost be to budge a distant, stubborn developer on property the public currently controls?