A Working Waterfront?
Tuesday, October 15, 2019
A WORKING WATERFRONT?: Port of Bellingham Commissioners held a long and ambitious meeting last week, focused in large measure on Squalicum Harbor and the Bellingham central waterfront—including some action on the long comatose Western Crossing Development, the development partnership agreement with Western Washington University.
In 2009, WWU Trustees and the Port Commission approved creation of the nonprofit corporation and development entity in an effort to bring state dollars and academic and technological innovation to the waterfront. Ten years later, with nothing to show for their patience, the commission expressed frustration with the glacial pace of Western’s planning and commitments for their portion of the central waterfront.
Frankly, it was as much an error to tie that portion of waterfront redevelopment to a single state educational institution—with limited dollars and a hunger to improve and consolidate Western’s own central campus—as it has been to tie the greater portion of overall initial waterfront development to a single, remote and opaque master developer.
“I’m not happy with the progress that Western Crossing has made,” Commissioner Ken Bell admitted at a meeting of the commission in February. “Quite frankly, I’m not convinced today that given the vision that we have for the waterfront and the educational institution, that Western Crossing or Western Washington University can deliver on what we would like to see.”
With that direction, port staff met with university officials in the spring with an eye toward revising the planning agreement for Western Crossing. In particular, the commission sought greater assurance on timetables and more latitude to alter or sever the agreement in the event those timetables remain unmet.
The effort produced a new proposal for the Western Crossing Innovation Park that was unveiled at a commission meeting in late September. Commissioners approved the amended agreement last week, and it is scheduled to be presented to Western’s Board of Trustees this week.
According to the presentation, the revised plan for the Innovation Park would focus on “renewable energy research and development, including electrification of land-and-marine based transportation systems, energy grid security, and other research and innovations that feed and protect our modern digital lifestyles.
“Western Washington University envisions being a collaborative partner in the Innovation Park and a potential tenant especially as new graduate programs, that are not as dependent on foundational general university required courses, are developed in the future”—which is a roundabout way of saying that the university is no longer planning to build a higher education campus or classrooms on their six acres of the waterfront district.
“A key feature of the working model is the notion that external partners have interest, and are capable of investing in, capital infrastructure,” university partners noted in their proposal. “Thus, utilizing both port and WWU institutional resources, barriers to expansion, relocation, and collaborative innovation are lowered.”
A more aggressive timeline envisions design work for the Innovation Park beginning in 2021 with some construction by 2022.
While this is certainly a more realistic and feasible near-term plan for the university’s presence on the central waterfront, it continues to reshape the district in directions not envisioned in the original master development agreement. As it organically unfolds over time, the district begins to more resemble a lower density zone for a light industrial park—a working waterfront—than a new neighborhood or extension of the city center. And that’s not a bad thing; but it is a very different thing than the plan originally approved by the Port Commission and Bellingham City Council.
City Council, meanwhile, continues to work through the tedium of proposed changes to that original Waterfront District Sub-Area Plan, as recommended by the Bellingham Planning Commission. The proposed amendments include changes to development regulations, design standards and completion schedules. The proposed changes continue to pretend that the original planned vision somehow syncs up with the reality actually unfolding on the ground.
If you’ve not yet had a chance to walk through your public waterfront, the Gristle recommends that you do so. The city has done an excellent job in cutting in attractive, well-designed streets and building parkland, and the site is as unmarred by bad decisions—long baked into this plan—as it ever will be. Enjoy it, and see for yourselves that what is actually unfolding there and in the Marine Trades Area is conceptually, visually incompatible with the wall of luxury condos planned to crowd along the waterway.
City Council expressed their annoyance with the pace and performance of the district’s absentee developer, the Ireland-based Harcourt Developments. Port Commissioners in their recent meeting echoed that criticism, greatly annoyed they’re on the threshold of extending contractual agreements with a non-performing, virtually nonexistent shell entity.
“People have seen this project go on and on, and they feel like it is not moving nearly fast enough, and we are not seeing the investment that we’d like soon enough,” Commissioner Michael Shepard commented. “We would like to see that we are a top priority for investment. Pushing this out even further is going to exacerbate public concerns that Harcourt hasn’t come to the table and is not invested in this project”—noting the almost complete absence of Harcourt staff on-site in Bellingham.
“We feel like the stepchild,” Bell agreed. “We see what Harcourt is doing elsewhere, and we do not feel like we are getting that attention here. Harcourt needs someone here, who knows what they are doing.” Bell added, “Harcourt’s reputation here is not good.”
Commissioners gave the extension. They had to. There’s no Plan B, and no opportunity to create one.