A misty early-evening view from the Whatcom Waterway at Roeder Avenue Bridge captures the ”Essence of Bellingham.” In the center background of the shot that won Best in Show in the city’s annual photo contest you can see the historic Granary Building, once the center of a flourishing farm-to-market system based on cooperation and mutual trust.
You might want to take a good look. The building won’t be there much longer if the Port of Bellingham has its way. Port officials see no useful purpose for this museum piece in their new, redeveloped waterfront. It stands where they wish a street to go, and they will tear it down.
The Port’s affable environmental program director, Mike Stoner, is the point man on issues that rouse critics to ask what in the world they think they’re doing over there on Roeder Avenue.
“I know there are people who want to save it,” Stoner said. “We tried hard to see if it would work. We hired Johnson Architects to take a look at reuse, and KPFF Engineering to see about bringing it up to code, and Lorig Associates to examine the feasibility of adaptive reuse. They assumed the most favorable conditions with tax credits, grants and so forth, and the most favorable view still says no.”
Jack Weiss says that’s because the port thinks first about getting rid of the building, doesn’t want to know its potential and doesn’t want the community to know. The Bellingham City Council member points out that port officials have never sent out formal “requests for proposals,” so they don’t know what possibilities exist.
“This is one of the most stupid moves the port has ever made,” Weiss fumed. “Maybe second to the firing of (former Executive Director) Charlie Sheldon.”
No formal requests, Stoner admits, but the port has “talked with developers,” who saw no way the Granary could be profitably reused.
Michael Sullivan, the architectural historian the port hired to review the historic value of what was left behind when Georgia-Pacific went away, is almost as steamed as Weiss.
“I think there’s no sympathy at the port for preserving historic buildings, and no understanding of how to reuse buildings,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan, a preservation specialist with Archives Corp. of Tacoma, says the port’s logic not only disdains history, but also makes no financial sense.
“If they tear it down, they simply lose that square footage, because shoreline regulations won’t allow them to build anything else on that footprint, over the water. Where does the port get its money, that they can spend half a million dollars tearing down a historic landmark, creating a space they can’t use? They could leave it up and leave it on the market, for nothing, and see what happens.”
Sullivan’s views were echoed in a June 18 letter from the Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team, architects who originally scoped waterfront redevelopment as early as 1992. The R/UDAT urged the port to save the building as a link back to the city’s historic heritage.
R/UDAT architects regarded the building as “iconic” and high in reuse options in spite of short-term unfavorable rehabilitation costs.
Stoner insists the port tried earnestly to find a way that a buyer might rehab the Granary and use it, and it just doesn’t pencil out.
“The consultant we hired to find the best reuse possibility produced a cost figure of $533 per square foot to bring it up to code. That’s about $14 million dollars, way past a reasonable value for the rehabilitated building.”
Weiss thinks those numbers have been simmered, stirred and seasoned to taste.
“The study they published was odd,” he says of the consultant’s report. “There’s a detailed analysis and background on how they determined the cost of reuse on the other buildings, but none for the Granary Building. Why did they leave that out? I’ve tried for months to get at look at that process, and they still haven’t given it to me.
“Now they’ve taken the entire report off the website. I suspect that the $533 per square foot is so ludicrous they’ve been advised to take it down. My guess is that they’ll rewrite it to something like $200 or $300 but that it will still be unfavorable.”
Other studies on the building suggest Weiss may have a point. A 2004 report from RMC Architects indicated the costs could actually be less than $200 per square foot.
“It really depends on the proposed use,” explained Robert Hall, who owns and has renovated a number of historic buildings in downtown Bellingham and Spokane. “The figure of $533 per square foot might be what you’d expect for a top-end medical center. I have renovated older buildings as warehouse space for as little as $75 per square foot.”
Port Commissioner Mike McAuley has a direct and blunt manner on this as on most port issues.
“I’ve been out front about tearing it down,” he said. “I don’t think it’s that incredible a building and the port has to move ahead. If people want to save the Granary, fine. Bring me money, not ideas. The port’s up against it. All the ideas I’ve heard for using it require money from the port.”
Weiss’ colleagues on City Council have had little to say publicly about the Granary Building, and realistically there isn’t much they can do about it either way, although it can’t be taken down until the city issues a demolition permit. The building belongs to the port, as a questionable bonus that came with the purchase of the remains of the Georgia-Pacific paper mill.
The Granary’s future is clouded not just in terms of financial sense, but by esthetic sensibilities. The concrete base and metal-clad five story tower don’t match the port’s concept of a dolled-up waterfront luring high-rise condominium builders, high-income residents and high-masted yachts.
It is, rather, a reminder that Bellingham was once a city with dirt under its fingernails. The huge circular logo on the side of the building facing the Whatcom Waterway reads “Washington Egg and Poultry Association,” and across the center in larger letters it says “COOPERATIVE,” a fading memento of the desires of farm people to free themselves of exploitation by railroads, packing houses and huge, monopolistic grain merchants.
In stark contrast to Georgia-Pacific’s corporate culture, the Washington Cooperative Egg and Poultry Association and the granary that housed it exemplified a shared community.
In the first half of the 20th century, Whatcom County farmers were catching on to the bargaining clout that comes with size and scale. It was fertile ground for the cooperative paradigm spreading across the country. Poultry farmers banded together to sell their eggs and to buy feed and supplies cooperatively. It was a movement of historic financial, social and political importance, and its symbol locally was the landmark building dominating the Bellingham waterfront, storing inbound feed and outbound eggs.
Not much remains of the record of how the building actually worked. Some accounts refer to a system of lifts and conveyors carrying thousands of cases of eggs into the upper stories where ventilators captured the sea breeze to keep the eggs fresh until they could be loaded onto eastbound trains. Grain and chicken feed were stored also, but the primary use was collecting and protecting the quality of eggs headed for breakfast tables as far away as New York City. From the early 1900’s through World War Two, Whatcom County often ranked first or second among counties on the West Coast in egg production.
The Granary isn’t pretty, and it’s in the way. Mayor Kelli Linville frets that a debate over the Granary’s future could stall the long-awaited rebirth of the waterfront.
“I’d hate it if this issue keeps us from moving forward. It could, because it’s at the entrance. It could stop everything. We need to get going on the new streets, the parks, the cleanup that we have to do. We want to get it done and get Bellingham people connected with their waterfront.”
As for its historic significance, “Keeping the Granary is not high on my list of priorities. There are so many things in Bellingham that are more iconic. The community is full of more attractive old buildings that we need to save.”
Linville’s quick to note that the city lacks any real authority to do anything about it either way. The building and its future belong to the port. Nevertheless the mayor’s influence will be central to tearing it down or keeping it, and she acknowledges controversy over the published estimate of making it usable.
“If the cost of $533 per square foot turns out to be wrong, I’d certainly like to see the correct figures,” she said. “The city paid half the cost of that study, and we need to be sure we’re given the correct data.”
In the proposed new, grand entrance to the reborn waterfront, Central Avenue becomes a pedestrian/bicycle route leading to waterside walks and parks. A new motor street branches off from Central, named with an ironic nod to history, “Granary Avenue.”
Public Works Director Ted Carlson admits the street could be built with the Granary in place, but not without sacrificing some margin of safety. The trick is to fit it between the Granary and the Bay-Chestnut viaduct. With the building gone it’s a cakewalk.
However, there’s some uncertainty as to whether the city could build the new street entrance on the site and still honor its own shoreline rules. The city recently rewrote its shoreline development regulations, with language that would not allow a new building to rise within 50 feet of the saltwater. Steve Sundin at the Bellingham Planning Department says a new street could be exempt from the setback rule, if it matches a list of specific do’s and don’ts. It may finally be up to the state Department of Ecology, whose shoreline specialists are presently dissecting the city’s rewrite of its Shoreline Management Program, to see if fits state regulations.
“Ecology has made it clear they won’t allow new construction over the water, or right at the edge of the water,” Weiss insists. “If they have to build under the new Shoreline Management Plan, they’ll have to stay back from the water. But they can keep the existing building where it is, rehab it for any number of good uses, without being restricted by the setback.”
Historian Mimi Sheridan of Seattle teaches Historic Preservation at the University of Washington’s School of Built Environments. She expresses the essence of her profession and passion in this frequent reminder to her students:
“Historic preservation is not just about saving what’s pretty, and what’s fun. It’s about saving our history.”
Photo by Jeff Aspnes, Courtesy of the City of Bellingham.
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