Sparing Bellingham's grand old granary

Supporters have rallied to try to save an abandoned granary, rich in the history of agricultural cooperatives. The local port has other plans.
Batman strikes again.

Batman strikes again. Cate Reed Photography/Bellingham

Granary backers project messages onto the side of the historic building.

Granary backers project messages onto the side of the historic building. Cate Reed Photography/Bellingham

Nine o’clock at the north end of Bellingham Bay. The lights of striving have blinked out in stores, banks and warehouses. Bats, owls and nighthawks apportion the sky.

On the broad tower of Bellingham’s relic Granary Building a circle of light appears, then the shadowed outline of a giant bat, its wings brushing the outer edges of the light.

Batman!

Maybe not. Across the railroad track, on the roof of what used to be Dick’s Tavern, now housing George Dyson’s kayak workshop and design lab, a projectionist changes a slide. The image on the Granary gives way to a nearly forgotten trademark – a circle in a circle, with the words: Washington Egg and Poultry Cooperative Association.

The Granary guerillas are at it again.

The Co-op symbol fades, replaced by a message seen more and more frequently around Bellingham on signs and T-shirts. SAVE THE GRANARY, it says.

Once the center of an exuberantly thriving farm cooperative, Bellingham’s Granary Building now stands empty and forlorn. Of its dozen un-boarded windows, ten are broken or missing. Pigeons and Pacific storms move in, unimpeded by any care from the building’s caregivers, the Port of Bellingham.

Port staff, whose decisions traditionally guide those of the elected Port Commissioners, see the 84-year-old museum piece as an obstacle. It stands where the Port wants a new street to go, at the gateway to a someday-redeveloped waterfront.

As in Seattle, Everett and other port cities, Bellingham’s waterfront redevelopment question is politically ticklish. The city’s former Mayor, Dan Pike, was at odds with the Port on redevelopment issues throughout much of his one term in office. Their differences included the Granary and whether or not it has a future. 

Pike narrowly lost the 2011 election to a fellow Democrat, Kelli Linville, whose campaign stressed collaboration and compromise. Mayor Linville has expressed concern that any debate over the Granary would get in the way of waterfront plans and set back the date when construction finally begins.  

Redevelopment is a very big deal in Bellingham. Two hundred twenty acres of prime waterfront await tenants or new owners. That includes 137 acres of the former Georgia-Pacific pulp and paper factory, which the Port bought in 2005 for ten dollars and a promise to clean up GP’s mess. The Port’s hopes involve a near-total leveling of the dozens of GP buildings that dominated the area, followed by sale to a developer still to be named; one with the cash to create a new, upscale business/residential community featuring a yacht basin for vessels of a size bespeaking large bank accounts.

The Port and City of Bellingham have clashed repeatedly over some basic issues of waterfront planning. At one point the president of the port commissioners, Scott Walker, declared that the Port had given up working with the City and would go its own way. Reminded that the City of Bellingham remains the planning and zoning authority for every foot of land the Port owns, the commissioners returned to collaborative planning and the two governments now work, mostly, from the same blueprints.

A map on which they agree shows Bellingham’s downtown uniting with its waterfront at a point directly in front of the old Granary Building. Agreement falters at this intersection. The Port wishes a new street directly through the space where the Granary now stands. A newly-organized group of local architects, developers, historic preservationists, city council members and diverse Granary guardians want the street to go around the building, so that it might be renovated for some useful civic or commercial purpose.

Although it came under Port control with the GP property, the Granary had nothing to do with Georgia Pacific’s enterprises. Its history ties to poultry farming, and the vaguely remembered flourishing of a huge business built on collaboration and mutual trust.

Through the early 20th Century, Washington chicken farmers sold eggs as small, independent producers, subject to the vagaries of local markets. In 1917 one hundred or so met in Seattle and created their own marketing agency. It became the Washington Egg and Poultry Cooperative Association, whose members built the towered, fortress-like storage and processing building on Roeder Street that remains a Bellingham landmark. In the depths of the Great Depression — in 1936 — they had 23,000 members, statewide.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Sep 4, 9:11 a.m. Inappropriate

Beware of Port staff and Commissioners who want to have RFPs or RFQs. That is what happened in Everett and they legally got around redevelopement by going through those steps... they still tore the Collins Building down.. just like they always wanted. They did not cooperate with any developer that came forward. The Port of Everett made it clear that it would not be a smooth working relationship. What developer wants to take on that kind of hardship?... none that I know of. How sad for our historic structures on this side of the country... oh, yeah and watch out for terminologies like.. "falling down" "dilapidated" and "safety hazard." Developers were not let in the Collins building because the POE was concerned for their safety. Strange how good old collins was in such terrible shape but after demolition, all of the supporting timbers made it into other buildings and were admired for their size and stability. go figure...now the Port of Everett has a paved parking lot for boats. BUT "a state of the art" parking lot... big hooey!

Annie

Posted Tue, Sep 4, 10:13 a.m. Inappropriate

Sounds like a situation just like the Collins Building in Everett. There was at minimum a vocal minority who defended the buildings historic values and opportunites for rehab/redevelopment. The Port sent out several RFPs and no one was interested. Supporters also solicited interest raising a few hundred thousand dollars, but nothing close to the low-ball estimated of several million to complete the project. Finally, the building was disassembled.

The question is then, if there is no private business or non-profit interest (i.e. lack of a sustainable business model) in the project, should taxpayers foot the bill to either rehab the building or the opportunity cost of leaving the property as-is?

Further, if the building lacks public and private interest, is it of historical value?

Posted Wed, Sep 5, 8:27 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for this, Bob. I depend on you and Floyd to keep us abreast of the relevant in my old hometown. My father worked briefly in the 1940s at the granary building after the Bloedel-Donovan waterfront mill closed.

The building was not seen as significant then but time may have made it a landmark. I continue to wonder whether the discussed waterfront
development will ever take place. Full demolition of old industrial buildings has not yet taken place. I suspect there may be more residual pollution at the G-P site than anyone imagined when it was acquired. Bellinghan's traditional downtown area has by fits and starts
revived, then fallen back, in recent years. What will happen to it if and when the envisaged waterfront development takes place? It is entirely possible that, after a lengthy and expensive cleanup, nothing will remain but a waterfront park with some boat moorage.

Posted Wed, Sep 5, 8:48 a.m. Inappropriate

PatrickJames's question is a good one. How should we define historical value? He suggests that one criterion would be popularity -- public or private interest. But arguably the most popular building in Bellingham. the wonderful 19th Century Whatcom City Hall that is now the Whatcom Museum of History, came within a breath of being torn down a few decades ago to accommodate a developer who wanted the space.
A Bellingham champion, Pat Fleeson, and a handful of her determined and capable friends, raised the money to save it. Otherwise the Northwest would be without one of its most cherished and visited historical landmarks.
The Granary building lacks the Museum's charm and grace. But it may be -- once the Georgia Pacific industrial buildings are leveled -- just about the last remaining evidence that this was once a city with calloused hands. Maybe it can't be saved, but its constituents in town want a public discussion and a sampling of developer-renovators' interest, before it's gone for good.
While I'm here, my apologies to Cate Reed of Bellingham for failing to credit her, until now, for the images that accompany this story.

Bob Simmons

Posted Sun, Sep 9, 8:45 a.m. Inappropriate

I think that's Michael Sullivan from Artifacts you mention, not Richard. One of the state's outstanding historic preservation consultants.

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