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Sparing Bellingham’s grand old granary

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

Chicken feeds were blended to special formulae through a bewildering arrangement of elevators, bins and conveyors that still occupy the interior of the tower. Thousands of cases of eggs arrived by truck to be sorted for quality, repacked and sent by train and ship as far away as the east coast. At one point in its feathered history, Whatcom County produced more eggs than any other in the West, except for one county in California.

Related cooperatives hatched chicks, processed canned chicken (Lynden Brand), dried eggs for the military, and developed a strain of White Leghorn chickens that became the standard for farm flocks all over the country. New York City residents paid a premium for Washington White Leghorn eggs.

Somewhere, in some institution’s archives, there may be records that would tell us why the Cooperative faded away, in the mid-twentieth century. Research for this story turned up dates and data, but no narrative to explain its demise. For whatever reasons, the Egg and Poultry Co-op abandoned its towered home on Roeder Street in the 1960’s. Georgia-Pacific bought it in 1971 and used the concrete-walled lower levels for general storage until the Port took over.

It has held up well. Architects and local developers touring the building in mid-August remarked on its stout condition, never mind the rainwater and pigeon crap arriving by way of the broken windows.

“It’s a slam dunk for renovation,” Michael Smith says. He’s a principal in Zervas Group Architects of Bellingham and impressed by the massive concrete walls, closely spaced columns, three-inch thick wood flooring, six-inch-thick wooden interior walls, and the lack of perceptible settling, despite extending over the salt water on a grove of pilings, for 84 years.

It would require earthquake proofing, Smith told reporters, but added, “I’d love to get hold of this and rehabilitate it. There are so many possibilities.” Meaning he’d love to be the architect. The developer, as yet undiscovered, would be someone with millions of dollars on hand and access to more millions later.

The news is that there may indeed be a “later.” The Bellingham City Council, in early August, unanimously asked the Port of Bellingham to publish — seven years into the redevelopment plan — “requests for proposals,” a call for developers to bring ideas and cash for adapting the Granary for reuse. The Port Commissioners agreed, at an August 24 meeting. (Port of Bellingham Commissioners are currently under more than the usual political pressure, by way of an incipient citizen’s initiative to expand the commission from three members to five).

First-term Port Commissioner Mike McCauley, who once favored early demolition of the Granary, was the one who insisted on sending out the RFP’s, to see what developers think of the building. Prior to the Port meeting, he expressed frustration that it hasn’t been done, after seven years of planning. “It seems to me there’s been some foot dragging by people who don’t want to do RFP’s,” he said. “Other than demolition, nothing has happened to advance redevelopment in the past seven years.”

The decision to request proposals amounts to a stay of execution, while Port staff condition the RFP’s and publish them. There will be time limits on the responses, although Port staff haven’t decided how long potential renovators should be given to make themselves known.

The estimated cost of a Granary rehab varies wildly. Mike Stoner, the Port’s Environmental Director, cites a consultant hired by the port who says it’ll cost $550 per square foot to bring the old building up to code. Local architect/developers who’ve adapted other old buildings for reuse, find that number preposterous. They say a more likely cost is $100 to $200 a square foot. 

Richard Sullivan, an architect with the Tacoma firm Artifacts, consulted the Port in 2004 when officials were pondering the takeover from GP. He points to some large gaps in the kind of tear-it-down logic that dominated at the time and may still prevail.

“If they tear it down, they simply give away that space,” Sullivan pointed out. The City of Bellingham shoreline management regulations require new buildings to be set back 50 feet from the water.

“The Granary’s directly at the water’s edge,” Sullivan observes.  “They can’t put a new building there.”

In this case, however, it’s a street, not a new building, that’s contemplated for the Granary site. That might conform to the rules, but Sullivan finds it illogical. “You don’t tear down a historic landmark in favor of a street,” he told The Cascadia Weekly. “You move the street, for crying out loud. A street can go anywhere.”

Not every historic building grows a constituency like the one that’s creating a stir in Bellingham. The Granary’s chances are boosted by the expertise of a lately organized group of architects, historians, developers, attorneys and city council members, and the energy of young activists like those who periodically shine a new light on the old tower.       

Notables who’ve been to Bellingham to plea for clemency include the state’s architectural historian, Michael Houser, and Chris Moore, the field director of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. Not to mention Batman.

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