Draft EIS left open, vague for good reasons


It’s been a long time coming.

After the Port of Bellingham aquired the Georgia-Pacific site and announced its redevelopment plans, the port’s recently released Draft Environmental Impact Statement is the first major step in that direction. This behemoth 1,300-page document outlines the impact of every possible development strategy for the site – from high-density mixed use that includes 20-story buildings to leaving it heavy industrial – and describes the environmental impact of each of five different alternatives.

For those who have not been following this process closely, the Draft EIS may seem to be a little too open ended for their comfort. What do they mean 20-story buildings? Are they planning to build it out to its maximum, or just leave it as industrial?

Of course not. The port is working with an unusual redevelopment scenario that is backwards from the way typical development projects are handled. Usually, a developer comes to the city with a plan. If they need to, they ask the city for a rezone. They come up with a master plan, then an environmental impact statement is done on the specific plan.

In the case of Bellingham’s waterfront, we are in the nearly unprecedented position of planning a large, public, industrial waterfront redevelopment, and there is no clear model on how to proceed. The port wants to leave all reasonable options on the table, just in case their current plan for “moderate” mixed-use redevelopment doesn’t happen. Even though the Port Commission has recommended a middle-of-the-road approach of mixed-use, it’s not guaranteed that’s what will get approved by the city. Therefore, it’s prudent to leave all options in.

Some have voiced reasonable concerns about a lack of a preferred alternative. While a preferred alternative is common for most developments, it seems wise in this case, to leave all alternatives in with no preference and let the master planning process determine the scope of the project.

It is in that master planning process that the community will have its chance to comment on specifics such as height limits, road grids and park layout. The great likelihood is that we will end up with exactly what the port, the Waterfront Futures Group and the community have been analyzing and roughly working toward all along — a moderate development that includes mid-sized buildings, parks, residential, light industrial and commercial uses.

But we won’t know what that will look like until we get there. For now, it’s a good idea to keep all of our options open.


Off Beat

by Rik Dalvit


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