Battle on the Bellingham waterfront

Seattle's not the only city tied in knots over its waterfront planning. Intramural squabbles beset Bellingham's waterfront vision, too. It could be a new seaside community. Or not.
Crosscut archive image.

An architect's rendering of the preliminary design for the Bellingham waterfront.

Seattle's not the only city tied in knots over its waterfront planning. Intramural squabbles beset Bellingham's waterfront vision, too. It could be a new seaside community. Or not.

Four years ago, when the port and city of Bellingham were good friends, they displayed gorgeous watercolor paintings to illustrate the future of the Bellingham waterfront. There are seaside condos, upscale shops, sidewalk cafes, business offices, marine-related light industry, a college campus, acres of tree-studded parks. The sun glistens on sailboats anchored in a new marina. But that was then.

The reality of that vision is in considerable doubt, with public squabbles between city and port about the shape of the new waterfront and who controls its destiny.

Last month the port's three elected commissioners sent Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike a letter declaring that the port would stop working on the project. "It is apparent that the city and the port cannot go forward with the waterfront redevelopment project as we originally envisioned," the commissioners said.

Soon after, Pike called a public meeting to explain city concerns over some of the port's redevelopment plans and likely environmental impacts on the city. Port commissioners and staff were invited. They stayed away, but 200 or so agitated citizens showed up, to take turns blaming the port and encouraging Pike to keep control of what could be the biggest waterfront redevelopment dream on the West Coast.

Surely it's the biggest deal in the 106 years of this former coal mining, salmon-canning mill town turned university town. There are implications for other port-city relationships, including Seattle's. They center on the city's determination to control land use, even when the land user is a public agency with a huge acreage of prime waterfront and an urgent need to do something with it.

In the buildup to the Bellingham showdown:

  • City planners rejected, in blunt language, the port's environmental impact statement on its redevelopment plan. The phrase "the above statement is false" dominates the city's comments on the port's work.
  • The city sued the port to prevent destruction of three older waterfront buildings that may or may not have historic value. The two sides follow conflicting policies on the amount of building preservation that's reasonable in the new waterfront plan.
  • The port proposed a street alignment that's totally at odds with the grid planned by the city, changing view corridors and continuing to isolate the new waterfront from downtown.
  • The two sides offered conflicting ideas for getting people to and from the waterfront. The port's plan calls for more parking spaces than exist in all the current commercial areas of Bellingham. Pike wants fewer cars, more transit, more bikes and pedestrians.

The idea of a renewed waterfront caught the public's attention in 2003, when Georgia-Pacific (GP) Corporation gave up on its aging, polluting pulp and paper mill on Bellingham Bay. The Port of Bellingham bought the plant and 137 waterfront acres for ten dollars. Some Bellingham cynics said they may have paid too much.

They own it, they have to fix it — the port now is cleaning up GP's mercury-laden chemical stew and that of previous industrial users, that has found its way into the Bay for a hundred years. Cleanup is expected to cost $95 million or more, with state grants paying half the cost. That includes a $20 million insurance policy against finding any contamination they don't yet know about. Add another $149 million to clear the land and put it in shape to develop.

Port officials say they would never have put their ten bucks, much less the port's long-term investment on the line, without a partnership agreement with the City of Bellingham. The agreement, signed in 2004, calls for the port to clean the Bay and prepare the land while the city foots the $200 million bill for streets, sewers, water, and other essentials. The port makes money on the land and a new marina; the city benefits from new jobs, increased tax revenue, and the notoriety of a spectacular seashore. But now the two sides can't agree on just what it is they agreed to.

Port officials claim the deal calls for a detailed master plan with land use regulations spelled out ahead of time, allowing developers to plan many years in the future without the cost of individual environmental impact statements on each project.

Mayor Pike says the city can't approve such a long-range, detailed agreement for the entire site and the six million square feet of building space it could someday support, 20 or 30 years from now. "We can't write a blank check," he told Crosscut. "We want to be a good partner, but they've got to realize we're also the regulating authority. We have to be. We couldn't give that away even if we wanted to."

Mike Stoner, the port's environmental director and spokesman for the redevelopment project, says the city's authority was never in question. "We recognize, clearly, that the city is the regulator," he said in an interview. "But we have to offer investors the certainty that they'd be allowed to move ahead without starting from the beginning on every piece of the waterfront a developer wants to build."

There's much more at stake here than the alignment of new streets or the preservation of old buildings. Western Washington University, high on a bluff overlooking the GP site, hopes to build a new campus on the waterfront, to house its Huxley College of the Environment. A waterfront Huxley would, in turn, be a perfect fit for another Bellingham vision — stealing NOAA from Seattle. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fleet of research ships is pondering a move from Lake Union when its current lease runs out in 2011. Bellingham Bay is considered high on the list of desirable new locations, especially with a promised Environmental Studies campus at dockside.

The port says millions of dollars' worth of government grants are dangling, to help build the new campus and create the site for NOAA, but will be lost unless the city becomes more flexible in a hurry.

The city and port might still get it together. Port Commissioner Scott Walker, the most outspoken member of the port hierarchy in condemning the city's positions, now says the commissioners are ready to meet with the city again, that they never expected the city to give away its authority to regulate land use, but that the port still wants the city's regulations spelled out in advance.

Mayor Pike sounded optimistic when interviewed. "We're going to get around this," he told Crosscut. "We're going to work together. We just want to make sure we understand each other and don't make any 20- or 30-year commitments that could damage the city."

Pike says the two sides could move ahead immediately with what he calls "early action" projects, on which the two sides have already agreed, and work out detailed regulations on other proposals as they are offered. But that falls short of the port's demand for a detailed master plan covering the entire 220 acres and a decades-long buildout.

In their political arm-wrestling, both sides are flexing impressive biceps. The port owns the land and could make money developing it for industrial use under current zoning. No shops, cafes or condos, but a useful working waterfront.

Even with industrial development, however, city planners have the last word. No street can be closed or realigned, no water or sewer pipe installed, without city approval. And what about the 35 acres of waterfront parks on the "must do" list of both city and port? "We can get the parks," Pike said last week. "Even if it's all industrial, even if we have to go to condemnation, we'll get the parks."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Bob Simmons

Bob Simmons is a longtime KING-TV reporter who has been writing news for print and television for 65 years.