City, Western propose development entities

PDAs could speed up work, progress on waterfront site


The formation of a Viking Development Entity could have Huxley College of the Environment on the waterfront by 2012. Graphic courtesy of Western Washington University.


Sometimes a little separation is a good thing.

Take Tacoma, for example. In 1996, the Tacoma City Council formed a seven-member board for the Foss Waterway Development Authority, which was to oversee property development and marketing for the publicly owned Thea Foss Waterway. While the council obviously understood the importance of having a separate entity administer the redevelopment, little did they know at the time how crucial this decision would become in creating success on Tacoma’s waterfront.

Some years later, as the development authority was moving forward into development, the city’s government was thrown into turmoil as Tacoma’s chief of police murdered his wife and then turned the gun on himself while the couple’s children sat in a nearby car.

In the aftermath, the city descended into low-level chaos, but due to its separation from the city government, the Foss Waterway redevelopment remained virtually undisturbed.

Now, two similar development entities are being proposed in Bellingham: a Bellingham public development authority (PDA) and a Western Washington University development entity.

Both entities would provide separation from their parent agency in order to expedite development.


Dan Pike

Learning from PDAs around the state

Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike lived in Tacoma when the Foss development authority was just getting started, and he saw the benefits that PDA enjoyed amid political chaos.

“I think the Foss Waterway provides a graphic example of why PDAs can be really important,” Pike said. “Certainly I wouldn’t hope or expect anything like that to happen here, but that is an extreme example.”

Under the Revised Code of Washington, public institutions may establish “public corporations, commissions or authorities.” These entities are established for a number of reasons such as to improve the administration of authorized federal grants or programs, to improve governmental efficiency and services, or to improve the general living conditions in the urban areas of the state.

But in the case of Bellingham’s two proposed entities, they would be established in an effort to undertake unusual endeavors that the city or the university wouldn’t normally do themselves, such as an urban redevelopment like the proposed Waterfront District.

Both proposed entities would redevelop parcels of the old Georgia-Pacific site. While Western would be building a new home for Western’s Huxley College of the Environment, Bellingham’s PDA would be authorized to work citywide, although the waterfront urban redevelopment would be the stimulus for and the focus of its creation.

Don Meyer, executive director for the Thea Foss Waterway Development Authority, said public institutions create PDAs for several reasons, but most often they are created because the sponsoring entity realizes that something different needs to happen to expedite activity.

“A political body recognizes that there is a better way to handle decision-making in a given development,” Meyer said.


The depoliticized development

The involvement of a PDA on Bellingham’s waterfront redevelopment is something that has been seen as a possibility since the Waterfront Futures Group analyzed the concept in 2003.

John Blethen, a former member of the Waterfront Futures Group, said that representatives from the Foss Waterway came and spoke to the WFG about the benefits of a development authority.

“I think if you look back at the documents, you’ll find that we were pretty much in agreement that a PDA was a good idea,” Blethen said.

Pike said when he got elected and really started digging into the waterfront project, it became clear that there were significant advantages for the city.

“When I started talking about it, the folks who thought it was a good idea before continued to think so, so I threw my lot in with that group,” Pike said.

Pike said he views PDAs as a means to depoliticize the development of public land and as a way to get support from a board of people with different realms of expertise you might not find in the public domain, such as real estate, environmental issues, and large scale development.

“You get to bring together a number of folks with the kind of expertise that is critical to the success of a project like this,” Pike said. “It also provides assurance for those participating in the development that they are not going to be pulled into a politicized process.”

Pike said politics has a lot of low-level turmoil, and development authorities like the Foss Waterway authority allow development to progress despite any political problems from the city.

“As a result, that waterway has been very successful at redeveloping a very challenging site,” Pike said. “And Tacoma, I think, is an even more challenging location to attract development, so if it worked there I am even more confident it will work here.”


The benefits of a city PDA

Meyer said it can be very difficult for local governments to have a development arm because they are also the regulatory body — so who would regulate the regulators?

Because of this conflict, Meyer said, PDAs become implementers of policies set by the mayor and city council.

“The benefit of a PDA is that we can take resources and implement a city vision in a way that minimizes local politics for the broader community interest,” Meyer said.

But Meyer warned that it must be very clear who the policy maker is in a given development.

“If you don’t clarify roles there will be a quagmire of conflict,” Meyer said.

Meyer said a PDA could also be an effective buffer regarding liability issues that could cost the city millions.

“PDAs can be a way to shield the deep pockets of a county or a city, because environmental liabilities could open the door for the political body to be held liable for a multitude of past sins,” Meyer said.

Pike said the city is now in the process of finding the right group of people for the proposed PDA’s governing board. Pike said he thinks seven is a good number for the board.

“It’s big enough to have the breadth of expertise that you want but small enough to be manageable, in terms of having meetings that don’t go on forever,” Pike said

The Foss PDA has seven members on their board and, like Pike’s vision, they come from all different areas of expertise. However, they also all come from corporate backgrounds or were CEOs at one time and are accustomed to getting things done.

“They have the experience and the expertise you rarely get from a political body,” Meyer said. “I am very fortunate that the members we have don’t put politics first and then rationale second.”


Karen Morse

Western’s Viking Development Entity

Western Washington University has also proposed an intermediary authority that would expedite the university’s presence on the waterfront.

In the port commission meeting on April 15, Karen Morse, president of Western Washington University, addressed the port commissioners regarding the college’s plan.

“This is where we are going and what we would like the (port and Western) to cooperate on,” Morse said to the commissioners.

Recently, the university has been looking at several different game plans, all of which include developing a Huxley campus on the waterfront.

The traditional model would have Western acquire the land it needs and build its facility using the regular biennial capital budget process, which Morse said could take six to 16 years. Although this is a familiar process for the college, the project would be dependent on the state budget and could be abandoned by the Legislature.

The university considered working with a private developer but the university community felt it was disadvantageous for Western to be subordinate to a for-profit entity. Also, Western considered developing the campus itself but found out it was illegal under Washington state law.

So the intermediary development entity emerged victorious. This method would give the college a lot of options, such as developing a larger site that could also include commercial ventures, the ability to establish site-wide development and design specifications, as well as contract with one or more developers.

“We really think this is the best way to approach this,” Morse said at the April 15 meeting. “We have worked very solidly with Mayor Pike and the port and they have been completely supportive of this.”


A real vision for the community

But the university still has a lot of work to do.

The university submitted its proposal to Western’s board of trustees on April 4 but asked them not to approve it until they further flesh out the entity’s legal structure, resources, objectives and scope of authority.

More importantly, Morse expressed a desire to finalize a request-for-proposals that would go out to potential developers.

“I don’t want just any (request for proposals),” Morse said. “I hope we can ask for a real vision for how this is going to serve the community.”

Like the city’s PDA, the Viking entity would have a governing board that would be comprised of a port commissioner, a Western trustee, the executive director of the Port of Bellingham, the university president and a fifth person who is yet to be determined.

While the Port of Bellingham was supportive of a Viking entity, port Commissioner Doug Smith advised caution.

“We need to proceed cautiously because we are on ground we haven’t trod upon in the past,” Smith said.


Jim Darling

Three development entities sitting in a tree

But in what ways, if at all, will the city PDA, the Viking Development Entity and the Port of Bellingham work together?

Jim Darling, executive director of the Port of Bellingham, said the city has approximately nine acres of developable land on the waterfront.

“The city’s PDA is designed to help the city develop its waterfront properties more smoothly and more effectively,” Darling said.

But both Pike and Darling said that the port would not be involved with the city’s PDA.

The port will be involved with the university’s, however.

Darling said, if approved, the Viking entity would buy a parcel of waterfront land from the port, enter into a 30-year lease with the university and then contract with a private developer to build the waterfront campus.

It’s understandable, Darling said, why the university has chosen this path of development.

“The traditional models for university development can be very cumbersome; this entity expedites the process,” Darling said.

Pike said the city and the university could potentially have some common areas of interest, such as working with the same developer.

“It may be that a developer who we’re talking with is interested in developing both parcels, so maybe we would work together and have an interlocal agreement about how we would work with that developer,” Pike said.

As for the site’s infrastructure, Pike said public works will definitely be involved for the entire site but the PDA may or may not be involved.

“That choice will be made on what is in the best interest of the city,” Pike said.

Darling said he is not surprised that both the city and the university are proposing these analogous entities for the waterfront site.

“Both are looking for more fluid ways of developing their properties,” Darling said.

But at this time neither Pike nor Darling see an umbrella agreement between all development entities working on the waterfront.

“I wouldn’t preclude it but I don’t see it right now,” Pike said.


Western’s Viking Development Entity timeline

Huxley College could call the waterfront home as early as 2012 if Western Washington University continues with its current plan of creating an intermediary development authority.

University President Karen Morse said in an April 15 port commission meeting that other operational strategies could take anywhere from six to 16 years, which would have Huxley on the water as early 2014 or as late as 2024.

2008: Western Washington University firmly establishes the bylaws, mission and overall identity of the Viking Development Entity.

Western and Port of Bellingham draft an agreement on how the port and the university will work together in the development of the Huxley campus.

Viking Development Entity gets a developer on board with their project by the end of 2008’s fourth quarter.

2009-10: Developer works with Viking entity and port to generate a detailed master plan for the campus site.

The developer works with architects to design the university’s waterfront facilities.

The project goes through the permitting process, then goes out to bid and is awarded to a contractor.

2011-12: Construction begins in early 2011 and continues for 18 to 21 months. Earliest potential completion of Huxley College on the waterfront is June 2012.


Public development authorities around WA

  • Museum Development Authority of Seattle, formed in 1985 to provide capital funds and construct, manage, and operate the downtown Seattle Art Museum.
  • Museum of Flight Authority, formed in 1985 to develop a public air and space museum in Seattle
  • Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority, formed in 1973 to preserve and redevelop Pike Place Market Historical District and the surrounding area.
  • Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation/Development Authority, formed in 1975 to preserve cultural and ethnic characteristics of the International District.
  • King County Cultural Development Authority, formed in 2002 when it evolved from the Office of Cultural Resources; the authority develops arts, heritage, historic preservation, and public arts.
  • Anacortes Public Development Authority, formed in 2002 as a community renewal agency.
  • Anacortes Downtown Development Authority, formed in 1986 to facilitate economic development, job creation and employment opportunities.


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