Bellingham’s waterfront plan seen as progress by some, but not by all

Nearly a decade of work on a master plan for Bellingham’s future Waterfront District ended last week, as local leaders approved guiding framework to redevelop 237 acres of shorefront property along the city’s center.

The Bellingham City Council voted, 6-1, Dec. 2 to approve a cluster of documents that lay the course for the new waterfront quarter. The Port of Bellingham’s Board of Commissioners gave its official approval Dec. 3.

City Council members approved several final changes to the planning documents prior to their vote. They added language in support of creating of living wage jobs in the district, attracting businesses to relocate to the waterfront, and maintaining the property’s wildlife habitat.

Council members also agreed to complete studies of the economic impacts of the future district every two years rather than every five, which had been initially suggested in planning documents. The Port Commission also approved these adjustments.

[Relevant waterfront documents are online at the port’s website and the city’s website.]

Both fans and critics of the waterfront plan packed City Council and Port Commission chambers last week.

Supporters, including some individuals who had been involved in the planning process at various stages over the past decade, said they were glad to see the initiative move forward.

Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville praised the waterfront plan as an important step for the community. She told City Council members that the possibility of working on the district’s development was one of the major reasons she chose to run for mayor in 2011.

Port Commission President Jim Jorgensen, in remarks prior to his final vote on Dec. 3, recalled his first year as a port commissioner in 2005, when government leaders and community members first began envisioning possibilities for a new shoreline.

“It’s been a long haul,” Jorgensen said.

Bill Gorman, interim director of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told City Council members he was happy to see the development process reach this milestone.

“I’m glad you’re finally at this moment,” Gorman said.

Ali Taysi, principal of AVT Consulting LLC, a Bellingham-based real-estate consultancy, said he believed the plan offered suitable balance between the various community and development interests, while also not being too ambitious.

Mark Buehrer, founder and director of 2020 Engineering, a Bellingham engineering firm that emphasizes sustainably designed building projects, said that the few early waterfront development proposals that had been made public were impressive. He hoped that waterfront planners would allow developers some flexibility when working within the parameters of the master plan.

“This development, once it’s completed, needs to show our inspiration, needs to show what we can do in Bellingham,” Buehrer said.

But some opponents said the framework has faults, including concerns that private developers, rather than local residents, will have too much control over the future district.

Kate Blystone, program director with the RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, a local nonprofit that has been critical of the waterfront plan’s treatment of habitat restoration and living wage job creation, told City Council members she felt they did their best to address her organization’s concerns. But she said the waterfront plan needs stricter language requiring habitat-impact assessments be completed prior to any building projects receiving approval.

Blystone also said there should have been another public hearing regarding the plans, a desire echoed by several others at the City Council’s Dec. 2 meeting. She said city staff had not been given adequate time to convey to residents the recent changes to the planning documents.

“The waterfront redevelopment is the biggest thing we’ve ever done as a community, and we need to take the time to do it right,” Blystone said.

Dan McShane, an engineering geologist and former Whatcom County Council member, was critical of the port’s involvement in the process. He said he opposed port plans to build a new marina inside a large lagoon that once served as a key component of Georgia-Pacific’s wastewater treatment system.

Plans for a marina inside the lagoon, known as the ASB, or aerated stabilization basin, have been controversial among residents and activists who would rather see the lagoon used to in broader cleanup efforts in the nearby Whatcom Waterway.

McShane said he found very few elements of the waterfront plan agreeable. He told City Council members that he would back any of them who voted “no.”

Councilman Jack Weiss, who cast the only “no” vote on the City Council, said he thinks the current plan dismantles former visions of a waterfront favoring large parks and the preservation of historical structures. He also raised concerns over the city taking financial responsibility to build new roads and bridges on the site, saying private developers should shoulder those costs.

Several City Council members who voted in favor of approving the final documents said they believe the plan still has flaws.

City Councilman Michael Lilliquist said he remains critical of certain aspects, including the amount of public park space allotted for the new district, as well as the scope of transportation options.

“This is less than I hoped for, less than it could have been,” Lilliquist said. “I think we’re falling short, not so short, but short nonetheless.”

But Lilliquist said he thinks the vetting process has led to new language in the plan that adds important symbolic significance to the undertaking. He said he takes solace in the fact that the approved documents do not represent the final stage of work on the new district.

City Council President Seth Fleetwood agreed with that thought, as did Councilman Terry Bornemann. They said that the documents, taken together, offer a master plan that allows the long-awaited process of renewing Bellingham’s waterfront to begin.

“This is a dynamic document,” Fleetwood said. “It’s going to be subject to change over the years, but this [approval] permits progress.”

Bornemann said that until a developer steps forward to build on the site, nobody can know for sure what shape the waterfront will take. At this stage of the process, he said, waterfront planners must focus on setting parameters.

“I think we’ve got a really good framework,” Bornemann said.

The port and the city are working together to direct planning, cleanup and development of the property. Much of the land comes with an legacy of industrial activity that for decades sustained hundreds jobs, yet left in its wake millions of dollars worth of environmental liability.

Cleanup, demolition and site prep have been underway on Bellingham’s waterfront for several years. Redevelopment areas span a strip of shoreline from the Bellwether Way development to the north, extending down to the site of a former garbage dump at the southern terminus of Cornwall Avenue. They also include the former site of a Georgia-Pacific Corp. pulp and paper mill, a property today owned by the port.

Development plans present a five-phase scheme with initial stages focusing on site cleanup and establishing a new commercial and residential area connected to the city’s downtown. Later phases include building a new public park at Cornwall Beach to the south, rejuvenating a marine-trades area and building the new marina to the north, and relocating a BNSF Railway line that bisects a portion of the site.

The port is already seeking developers for about 11 acres of property that surrounds Bellingham’s historic waterfront Granary Building. That process includes selection of a “master developer,” who will guide the first commercial development on the site.

The first construction on the site is not expected to begin for several more years.

Evan Marczynski, staff reporter for The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or

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