Developers have $5M plan to save waterfront Granary Building

A 1920s-era building in the middle of Bellingham’s central waterfront with high-end apartments, new restaurants, offices and expansive coastline views.

For a price tag of $5-6 million, it’s a project one development group has envisioned for the abandoned Granary Building on the city’s waterfront.

John Blethen, a longtime community developer and business owner, presented a conceptual drawing of what the remodel could look like during a recent Port of Bellingham commission meeting.

“I’m here to romance an old building,” Blethen told the commission.

The drawing, which shows the north side of the building from the intersection of Roeder and Central avenues, depicts a structure full of windows with shops and restaurants on the ground floor along with outdoor seating areas and walkways.

Rob Fix, the port’s interim executive director, said he thought the concept was impressive.

Along with the city of Bellingham, port officials have undertaken the massive cleanup and redevelopment process for the waterfront property formerly owned by the Georgia-Pacific company.

The port announced in early September that the Granary Building would be included in the agency’s first request to developers for potential uses of the site. Fix said the request would likely go out in late November or early December.

In terms of the port’s efforts, the fact developers were looking at the Granary Building for mixed commercial and residential use was a good signal, Fix said.

“It was exciting to see the drawings,” Fix said. “It was a really great looking building. I think it’s a good sign of where the real estate market is heading.”

The proposed $5-6 million cost of the development group’s plan is about one-third of the dollar amount the port’s environmental programs director, Michael Stoner, suggested would be needed to handle structural rehabilitation and deal with mold and infestation problems in the building.

During a joint meeting of the port commission and the Bellingham City Council back in May, Stoner said it could cost up to $14 million to bring the Granary back to life. At that cost, renovation would not be financially viable, Stoner said at the time.

Yet with public outcry over the potential loss of the historic structure, the port commission has decided to go ahead and give developers a chance to propose new uses for the building.

The $14 million figure has been disputed by developers.

Blethen, who described the port’s estimate as “crazy,” said renovation on the Granary Building would not require a lot of demolition work, and after touring the site a couple months ago, he said structurally, it is well built.

“We’re thinking that $5-6 million is a realistic number,” Blethen said.

The Granary proposal is still in its early stages.

Michael Smith, a principal at Zervas Group Architects in Bellingham who is connected to the project, said the remodeled building would include up to six apartments in the Granary’s tower, a mix of additional apartments and offices on the second floor and space for more offices and restaurants on the ground floor.

Both Smith and Blethen confirmed the development group had secured commitments from potential tenants, but neither could give specifics on who would be ready to move in or how much space could be filled.

Smith said he thought a remodeled Granary Building would be a wonderful addition to the city’s waterfront.

“We’re really excited about this project,” he said.

Blethen said one hang-up for the group’s proposal was uncertainty over how the port planned to offer the building once a request to developers was released.

When the port announced the Granary Building would be included in the request, the building was to be combined with adjacent land near the head of the Whatcom Waterway.

Blethen said his group’s proposal for the Granary was a “stand-alone deal,” and would not include adjacent property.

He added that unless the port already had a potential developer in mind, he thought lumping the Granary with surrounding property would be a tough sell.

“The question is: How would they market something like that in this small town?” Blethen said. “That would be my concern, that it could just sit there.”

Rob Fix said he was in favor of allowing flexibility for development proposals on the waterfront, including leaving the Granary Building as a stand-alone project. But the port was not yet far enough along in the process for him to say what a request for the site would look like, he said.

During Blethen’s presentation, port commissioners Scott Walker and Jim Jorgensen spoke positively about the project’s potential. Jorgensen said he was happy to hear the group was working with local developers.

Blethen said the proposal was a way to save a historic component of Bellingham’s waterfront and encourage new private business in the emerging district. Plus, he said rehabilitation would prevent a previous plan to tear down the Granary, which port officials have estimated would cost about $500,000.

“If we can save that tax money and have the private sector come in, this is a real asset for the community,” he said.

Contact Evan Marczynski at or call 360-647-8805. 

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Granary Building concept
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