The Port of Bellingham’s resolve to tear down the historic Granary Building on Roeder Avenue will undergo new scrutiny at Bellingham City Hall. Council Member Jack Weiss says he’ll draft a resolution urging the port to consider what adaptive reuse might be feasible for the building. Weiss’s resolution asks the port to send out “Request for Proposal” letters to potential developers. The RFP officially asks firms in the rehabilitation business to bring their Granary ideas to the port, whose managers have talked informally to developers about the building, but have not sent RFPs.
Bellingham City Council can’t bind the port to any specific action, but Weiss says his resolution will serve to remind Port Commissioners that waterfront redevelopment is a partnership between the port and the city, a relationship that seems at times to be forgotten.
Meanwhile, port staff and administrators have made public their vision of the Granary’s future by the way they’re taking care of it. Of six exposed windows in the lower section of the building, four are broken. Flocks of pigeons make themselves at home. Of the six windows in the cupola, 45 feet above street level, five have broken out or gone missing entirely. Pacific storms pour in at the top and the water soaks downward.
Port staff note that some of the building’s giant fir beams are showing signs of rot, but the windows remain open. It’s clear the port plans not to spend a buck on this museum piece, not to mention laying out $19.37 per sheet for exterior plywood.
Owners of historic buildings apparently have no legal responsibility to maintain them, except to provide for public safety. The port does the public safety part by locking up the Granary, fencing part of it and disallowing visitors. Except for pigeons, for whom the window is always open.
Pigeons are part of the reason you’re not allowed inside, Mike Stoner says with a straight face. He’s the port’s environment program director and the person who gets stuck dealing with reporters who call with audacious requests.
“We can’t let you in,” Stoner told the Cascadia Weekly. “We’ve had a warning from health officials that the building may be unhealthy. The feces from rodents and pigeons may contain dangerous pathogens. There’s a possibility of asphyxiation from all the pigeon guano. We can’t take a chance on admitting visitors.”
Might someone misinterpret this as part of a plan to keep the public from seeing the possibilities in a renovated, adapted, reused Granary building?
“You can write all the conspiracy theories you want,” Stoner said. “We’re not going to let you in.”
However. There are visitors and then there are visitors. City Council member Jack Weiss, Port Commissioner Mike McAuley, architect Dave Christensen, and others braved the threat of the dreaded pigeon guano to tour the building in May, with the port’s permission.
Weiss and McAuley disagree on the practicality of saving the Granary. McAuley thinks it will inevitably have to go and thinks we should get on with it, but he’s willing to listen to opposing arguments.
Weiss emphatically does not want the Granary torn down before an all-out effort to see if someone wants it.
“The building looks to be in great shape,” Weiss said after his visit. “By the way, I don’t believe that business about the dangerous pigeon crap. My living room’s dirtier than that place.”
Christensen is experienced in rehabilitating old buildings and putting them to new uses. The Granary, he says, is in “fantastic shape. I’ve seen a lot of old buildings in the last 35 or 40 years, and I’ve seen some in so much worse condition be renovated and put to excellent use.”
Christensen points out that the ground floor of the Granary happens to be at the same grade as a proposed pedestrian walkway on what is now Central Avenue, on the southwest side of the building.
“That offers great possibilities for retail and public space along the walkway. It’s almost a miracle that it happens to be at the same level.”
The enthusiasm of Cristensen, who serves on the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, mirrors that of the City of Bellingham’s Waterfront Connections plan, published in 2008. That document envisions a Granary Esplanade, “creating a striking landmark that preserves this historic structure. It could be renovated as a library, perhaps, or a hotel, or community building. It could open to the waterway with roll-up doors that allow events to spill onto the pedestrian esplanade that overlies the intact original shoreline beneath.”
Doubtful port officials cite a consultant’s finding that the Granary’s much too far gone for a financially viable rescue, and that bringing it up to code would cost $533 per square foot. Christensen is incredulous at that figure. He points out that his company totally renovated the old Gaston Bay building at the west end of Roeder Avenue, “taking it clear down to the shell, replacing everything, for $98.66 per square foot.”
On either side of the demolition/renovation question, there seems to be little debate about the historic significance of the Granary. It was the heart of the farmer’s cooperative movement that flourished from the early 1920s into the 1960s. Small farmers formed an alliance to buy grain and feed at bulk prices and send Whatcom County eggs to markets as far as 3,000 miles from Bellingham. They built the Granary as the center of that movement. Washington’s Architectural Historian, Michael Houser, describes the building’s design as “rare and vanishing.”
The chair of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, Rod Burton, sent Mayor Kelli Linville a strongly worded plea last month, urging Linville to intercede with the Port to preserve the Granary. Burton pointed out that once it’s destroyed, nothing like it can be built in that location. New shoreline regulations prevent putting up new buildings within 50 feet of the water, and limits heights to 35 feet. The Granary is more than 45 feet and stands directly on the water.
“Once lost,” Burton wrote, “this building size and location is lost forever.” Mayor Linville sent the letter on to the Port without comment.
The city’s newest Council member, Cathy Lehman, weighed in on the Granary issue this week. She wants the building’s future decided through an open public process.
“For better or worse, the Granary is a part of Bellingham history,” she said. “There needs to be a process where people can be heard on the question of keeping it or tearing it down. And it certainly doesn’t seem fair or wise to leave the building open to the weather, to deteriorate while we work through that process.”
Chris Moore, field director for the private, nonprofit Washington Trust for Historic Places, says there’s a commonly used term for the port’s current policy toward the Granary. It’s called “demolition by neglect.”
A school will close.
The Bellingham School Board last week approved a plan to close Larrabee Elementary School by 2016, citing concerns about the age and size of the 93-year-old… more »
Full disclosure: I’m one of the gardeners who dig the Fairhaven community garden at 10th Street and Wilson Avenue. Just as the over-wintered lettuce is ready for munching, the direction… more »
Forty years ago, pollutants poured from pipes into our rivers and streams. We created an extensive framework of laws and regulations, an entire federal environmental protection agency and satellite departments… more »
A new park takes shape along the city’s central waterfront.
Bellingham City Council approved an agreement with the Port of Bellingham to use state grant money to create the park… more »
At 10:30 the morning after the late-night park vote, County Council member Pete Kremen had not yet slept.
“I’d love to talk to you,” he told a caller, “but I… more »
The thought of experimenting with animals to create new life forms that can be patented, produced in commercial feedlots, and marketed without labeling makes most people very uneasy. Genetic engineering… more »