Rekindle the Flame

Wherefore art thou, waterfront?

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The waterfront: At its core, it is a love story.

And, like so many love stories, there is the falling in and out of love—the spurned advances, the jitters of affection and rejection, the halting steps and failures and retreats and recoveries, the eager holding of hands and solemn walking of beaches—and there is often is, in all great love stories, a separation.

The divorce notice was splashed across the front page of Sunday’s Bellingham Herald, “Cleanup, business expansion on tap for Fairhaven waterfront:” “The Port of Bellingham awarded a $12.5 million contract to IMCO General Construction to dredge and make infrastructure improvements around the Fairhaven Shipyard property near the Bellingham Cruise Terminal on Harris Avenue. The project has several parts and will take two years to complete because cleanup and construction work will stop at different times of the year….”

The port’s moved on from the love story everyone cares about: The central waterfront, and a community’s fond hopes for the rehabilitation of an industrial brownfield, a beach to walk. The City of Bellingham remains the stalwart friend, still invested in outcome, still pressing for hope. The bride is back in Ireland, a shy lass uncalled upon.

The city, the port, the state agency involved in cleanup sent out a general flyer last week, touting their achievements, an update of the Granary Building remodel. The flyer promised more in the future, but there was little energy within it, few specifics of moving forward beyond citations of costs. It was a cold postcard from a wilted romance.

Every love story is enfolded in another story, and this one was written many years ago.

Sitting bored in 2013 while Bellingham City Council staggered through the minutiae of the Waterfront Development Master Plan, I began to jot down a list of things the council should ask for in return for giving the port their every hearts’ desire. In order to deliver a compliant surrender to port insistent demands, the city should ask for these things, I imagined. The list grew to ten items; and then, when it became clear city leaders would demand nothing in their surrender, I began to strike things from the list. In the end, there was only one final, most important demand remaining:

“Take down the fences and razor wire immediately. Let the public walk on the site they own. Let the public be excited by the possibilities.”

This is what I believed City Council should ask in return for giving the port everything the agency desired, without pushback or question.

It still hasn’t happened, but it should happen.

The folly of the master plan was this: The port and city pretended there was another party at the table, and did everything to gussy the chair and welcome the absent party. The absent party was the master developer.

When the master developer finally showed up, Harcourt Developments based in Ireland, they had an entirely different approach to the master plan.

Now this mail-order bride was an arranged affair. In the Irish Gaelic, we’d call him the coimhdire or seachrán, the matchmaker. ’Twas he, in the lyric of the bards, that encouraged Harcourt to bid for the role of master developer; and ’twas he that’s kept Harcourt’s flame alive through the years even as the suitor, the Port of Bellingham, engagement in hand has moved on to other concerns.

The matchmaker’s name was John Reid, he was an architect, he was from Ireland, he was in Bellingham, and he was following a love story of his own.

Reid had come to Bellingham because he’d fallen in love with a woman, and he came to love Bellingham. He came to love the waterfront.

“I had this interesting thought recently connecting my personal life with the waterfront, thinking ‘Why did I come here? What am I doing in Bellingham?’ And ‘How did I get connected with this waterfront?’” Reid said. “And I have this connection, and came here on a dream, a dream tagged on a belief. That put me in a particular sort of space of happiness, and in that happiness space I accidentally walked into that waterfront project. But I was in a good space, everything was great.

“I believe—ignoring all the history, and ignoring all the politics—I believe,” he said, “that space I was in also allowed me creative space.

“It’s made me think about design and art, and where do ideas come from that rise above politics and difficulty? You have to be in the right frame of mind, the right thought process to create and make something happen, because reality and functionality just bog you down—you’re done. And I suppose I had a sense of freedom, a sense of happiness that allowed me to wander and discover, to research Bellingham and its history, what it once was and what people might like, and I could put all that together quietly in my own space, on a living room table. And I’m intrigued by that, and I quite like that when I think back about it,” he said.

The waterfront, Reid noted, was once upon a time all old growth forest down to the water’s edge, where tribal peoples fished for their way of life.

“Everything that’s happened in the century since that time has been a reduction, a retreat from that beauty and natural world,” he said. “So if all we did was restore that forest, it would be an improvement, a return to something better. But I think there is opportunity to do more.”

“When you first came on the scene,” I noted, “there was a lot of excitement percolating around waterfront redevelopment. And behind the scenes, you were responsible for a lot of that excitement because you were the person who reached out to encourage Harcourt to submit a proposal that was later accepted by the Port of Bellingham to develop the site.”

“It’s incredible to think back, three and a half years, at that vision that I had. It’s not changed,” Reid said. “There’s been some tinkering with it. And it has gone back into that process arena—which is an arena that I am personally not excited or inspired by, but it seems to be a necessity. But until it comes out of that arena into the reality of it being agreed and having an end date, it is going to go around endlessly in a circle.

“And so I think what would be great to hear is the collective agreement and support of that vision,” he said.

“I think each—the port, the city, and Harcourt—may have slightly different views and aspects of it, but really they need to agree and finalize this. I think it would be disheartening to hear that we’re going around on this again. I feel disheartened,” Reid said, “by the time that this has taken.

“Meanwhile,” he said, “there’s a freshness that’s come to the project, a focus on creating public space. It all seems like the get-go is all there.”

I looked back at my notes, and I agreed. When the port commission first proposed the project, they filled the Mount Baker Theatre with an eager audience thrilled to move forward. By the time they’d beaten out a master development agreement nearly a decade later, barely a dozen disheartened citizens turned out. Excitement, enthusiasm—the port’s greatest assets—had been virtually destroyed by an aggressive process resistant to public review.

“What do you need,” I asked, “ to regain the excitement?”

“You need a good idea,” Reid replied. “You need political will. You need community support. You need an element of Irish luck—or any kind of luck—to get it home. And you need a champion, an absolute champion, a hero that doesn’t have to be the designer or the architect. It could be a politician, it could be a person in the community, but you need a champion to get it home, to take the risk, and if it fails, it fails and you carry it. That is crucial. And you need to have some kind of strategy moving forward, because you are going to hit obstacles. Which really all comes around to leadership.”

“What needs to happen,” I asked, “that has not happened?”

“I’m going to give you two versions of that answer,” John Reid said. “The first one is that it is going great, the Granary project is started. The port and the city are in discussions and are working as a partnership with the developer, and that’s all great.

“The other is that we in the second 10 years of a talking phase about the waterfront, and it is going to continue to go around in circles and make very slow progress.

“If there’s something missing,” he said, “it is drop end date of a big event when it is all going to be done.”

“How should it be done?” I asked.

“I rather like the old project managers’ approach,” he said. “Decide when you’re going to finish and work your way backward. From that, you create timetables, you create pressure, you create deadlines to get it done by, you build events and optimism around that, and you create a sense of excitement in the community. As opposed to letting it roll out slowly like a piece of carpet, you let the whole damn lot out, with a big idea to carry it.

“And I think this project is somewhere between those two situations.

“I probably have less interest in square footage and building roads, environmental cleanups, because that’s all technical stuff that is going to get done,” he admitted. “I am more interested in, ‘What can you build that’s going to generate “Wow,” that’s going to give the community a sense of involvement, that they know when it’s going to happen, how it’s going to happen,’ and you can plan around that.

“For instance,” he suggested, “news that Bellingham will launch a massive new music festival somewhere on the waterfront in 2020, the new part will be open, the new hotel will be open, and start planning for big events around it. That is the kind of planning that excites and interests me.

“And by contrast a rolling fold-out of something piecemeal, bit by bit, does nothing for me. And I don’t believe the community will be inspired by that sort of thing. So—I’d like to crank it up.

“I’d like to put a foot on the accelerator,” Reid said. “You’ve talked about the project for 10 to 12 years, the Irish developer has been here for three-and-a-half years, that sort of pendulum can’t run forever, the sand in the glass jar is going to run out before you get this project.”

“If you were the mayor or port director or the king,” I suggested. “what would be the first thing you would do there?”

“I would sign up to the new vision plan,” Reid replied. “I would make it clear to the community that there is complete agreement on that. I would take that plan and idea to Seattle and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a new plan for Bellingham. We’ve got our plan and our act together on this vision, we’re going ahead with it now. We’re open to do business, we’re open to economic investment, we’re leading the way through Bellingham’s interest in parks to building a new park connecting up with a new trail through it, and we have the best piece of waterfront land on the West Coast. Please come here.’ I would send that message out to Seattle, to Vancouver, to drive economic investment here while providing the public ground space to the community.”

“There’s so much paper on this project,” I said. “How do they differ from the sorts of designs you’d like to see?”

“You’ve got at least ten years worth of paper that would probably line the road from Bellingham to Seattle. And I don’t fully understand all the reasons for that, but it is what it is,” Reid said. “My vision is to try and create a project that works for Bellingham. And the waterfront is a sort of fracture in Bellingham. People can’t get into it, they can’t get access to it, they’re screaming to get down there, they want things to happen for their city. And there is this love of parks and trails, and I believe the waterfront could become a healing project to join up a trails culture through the bluff, Fairhaven, Taylor Dock, Boulevard Park, South Trail, down through the site to Maritime Heritage Park. You build a connectivity. You can also build connectivity along the water’s edge. You can do it as a double-header—you can have a summer trail along the water, you can have a winter trail protected through the park. You set that up as the frame, and within which development can occur.

“Developers, boards, businesses will all decide what that is inside the frame. You don’t try to control that, you let the marketplace take it.

“I think it would be fantastic if there was a public interest project at the center of it,” Reid said, “whatever that might be—a theater, a library, a cultural museum that recognizes the heritage of Native Americans and that waterfront. When you create that public space you’ve given the community the land back, around which development can occur.  And there will be many opinions about what that development ought to be.

“I like the idea of a big waterfront hotel project, the stimulus, the connectivity with Western Washington University, attracting academic business. There are hotel and conference people who will want to come here, and that will spill over to other ventures that will receive that business. It’s a win-win situation.

“When you create that public frame, that accessibility to the waterfront—that should be the goal. You create a target. You know, ‘We’re going to get this built by a particular day.’ Let’s get it agreed. Let’s send the message, and get it done.”

“The Granary, the Boardmill Building. They’re like bookends to the best, cleanest, most developable property with proximity to downtown,” I said. “What’s your vision for what should go there?”

“I’d go a step further,” he replied. “I don’t see it as a piecemeal approach to the waterfront property. If you look at it, the entire site has been cleared, the cleanup has been substantially done. It’s clear from the Granary to Cornwall Beach. Let’s build the park. Let’s build the whole thing in as if it is a piece of old growth forest. Let’s line it up with some Douglas firs and cedars and natural landscaping. Let’s put it together as a trail, 25 feet wide at one end, 100 or 125 feet in the middle. Let’s put some history in there, and let’s solve the big issue—make the big green footprint on the site. The Granary is the start project, the Boardmill is the middle, and connect it all to Cornwall Beach. So we can get Cornwall Beach as a project with a relationship to the water.

“The leftover space—the port, the city, the developer—they can talk that to death, if they want.

“But once the big green space is in, I would like to see that as the driver for the project, and I would like to see that effort accelerated.

“That’s the kind of purpose that I believe would excite people.”

“The city and port put together a master development agreement for the site as if they were negotiating with a third party at the table, the master developer,” I said. “Now the city and port have decided to step back and allow the master developer, Harcourt, to drive the pace of the project. What role should Harcourt play in driving the pace?”

“The master developer, through me, has brought a new vision for that site,” Reid said. “But that vision plan is not completely agreed to yet.

“The developer presented the idea I spoke of earlier several years ago, and discussions have been revolving around that for a while. I think it would be good to conclude that quickly—we’re going to do that, we’re not going to do that—and move on.

“They agree with the city, principally, about the building of that park, because that’s what the community wants.

“So I think Harcourt has a role in that, to help with the leadership of that. But the leadership can’t come from Harcourt alone. It needs a champion at the local level to say, ‘This is what we’re doing, and this is what needs to be done.’”

I mentioned that hopeful third party, the City of Bellingham.

“The city has proposed a street layout, and I believe the work on that is schedule to begin this summer. Does the street layout proposed by the city in any way foreclose on the vision for an expansive park throughout the site?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “The city has been very positive and proactive about that road alignment to allow the vision to occur, very positive. The city has been very supportive of the vision plan.

“But you need the three sides of the triangle, and have to shake hands in the middle to get it all done.”

I’m eager to know how this love story turns out.

“Are there success stories,” I asked, “that give you confidence a project like this can succeed in Bellingham?”

“I think the redevelopment of the old shipyard in Belfast is a very inspirational model,” he said. “It is not perfect, by any means, but it is 180 acres of brownfield, contaminated shipyard, in the heart of that city that has become a destination.

“That is possible, and that is doable.

“The important thing is to take the brakes off, let the developer spend money, bring their experience to bear and release the project. Take the shackles off whatever is impending progress.

“An inquisitive argument is, ‘Where is the roadblock? Why is this not happening?’

“The developer had a big aspiration to build that hotel, and I think they should be allowed to pursue that, and pursue it with haste.

“Harcourt has developed hotels in Belfast, Dublin, Liverpool. That tells me they know something about how to do it, to make it work. Let them to do it.

“If someone,” Reid said, “comes to your town and wants to spend $20 million on a hotel, wouldn’t you get out of his way and do it? You know, provided it is done in a way that is exciting to the community.

“You have to,” he said, “take risks. Because the man sitting next to you is going to try to talk you out of doing it.

“My confidence comes from the public realm, and creating that kind of frame in which projects can occur.”

As I said, it’s a love story. It’s a story of rekindled love. And it starts with an admission that in love there can be no fences, no razor wire. Take down the barriers, and let the public fall in love again.

Photo of architect John Reid courtesy of Ray Deck III at

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