Final decisions await Bellingham's future Waterfront District

Mike Stoner had news the Port of Bellingham’s commissioners had been waiting to hear: The Bellingham City Council’s dissection of a complex master plan proposal to redevelop swaths of waterfront real estate could finish within weeks, clearing the way for the plan’s final approval.

“I think we’re on track,” Stoner, the port’s environmental programs director, said Nov. 19. Stoner has worked with counterparts at the city deliberating over the master plan. “I think at this point, we’re pretty much at the end of changes to the documents.”

City Council voted, 6-0, on Nov. 7 (Councilwoman Cathy Lehman was out of town and excused from the vote) to grant preliminary approval to the Waterfront District master plan, which will be a roadmap for future environmental cleanup and real-estate development on 237 acres of formerly industrial Bellingham waterfront. The vote allows the council to move toward a final vote on the plan, which has been a work-in-progress for nearly a decade. Port of Bellingham commissioners must also approve the plan before any development can begin.

Elected leaders with both the city and the port  are expected to take action on the Waterfront District plan at their next public meetings on Monday, Dec. 2, and Tuesday, Dec. 3, respectively. Agendas with links to relevant public documents are available on the city’s website and on the port’s website.

Port staff and commissioners have been active in the city’s review process, which has stretched for most of the latter half of 2013. The city and port are partnering on the redevelopment, as the port seeks private developers and tackles multimillion dollar environmental cleanup efforts, while the city focuses on building new streets and public utilities.

Future steps

Port officials issued an official request for proposals back in May offering 10.8 acres of property that surrounds the historic waterfront Granary Building, a section of land likely to be the first to see new building activity. The port commission’s November work sessions on the waterfront proposal focused heavily on responses to the request.

Rob Fix, the port’s executive director, said interviews have been completed with three companies expressing interest in taking on a master land developer role for the entire property. Interviews have also been completed with three other firms seeking standalone agreements to renovate the abandoned Granary Building, he added.

The port revealed eight separate proposals to the official request in mid-July, with six split between the entire property and the Granary Building joined by two smaller, self-contained proposals: one from the Bellingham Housing Authority for a 100-unit affordable housing complex; the other from an Oregon-based partnership seeking to build a waterfront hotel.

[View the proposals and other relevant public documents on the Port of Bellingham’s website.]

Proposal reviews have been taken up by a partnership of local government leaders and others, including Fix, Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville, Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws and Steve Swan, the vice president of university relations at Western Washington University. The group will make recommendations to the port commission, which will make the ultimate decisions.

Initially, port commissioners were told they could have recommendations by early fall 2013. However, Fix said the acceptance of a late entrant to the pool of potential master developers delayed the process.

That entrant, a global partnership with the name Uniting Creatives LLC, has proposed a broad scheme called the Four Pillars Development. The proposal features a wide array of possible projects, with heavy focus on environmental sustainability and partnerships with local government agencies, schools and other organizations.

Along with the Four Pillars Development’s backers, other firms in the running for the master developer role include:

–  Harcourt Developments Limited of Ireland, along with local partner Tin Rock Development Inc. One of Harcourt’s notable projects is the Titanic Quarter on the site of the former Harland and Wolff Shipyard in Belfast, Ireland, where the famous yet ill-fated ocean liner was built in the early 20th Century.

– Williams/Dame and Associates of Portland, Ore., with partner Loci Inc. This group’s past work includes several redevelopment projects in Portland, including in the city’s Pearl District and South Waterfront District.

An early proposal submitted by Bellingham developer David Ebenal, under the company name Viking Development LLC, has been withdrawn.

The list of proposed developers for the 1920s-era Granary Building remains the same:

– Quay Property Management, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, seeks to create a public market in the building, along with restaurants and office space. Quay has developed similar markets in B.C.

– Tollhouse Energy Company, along with Zervas Group Architects, both from Bellingham. Their plan features a fish market, in addition to restaurants, offices and residential units. Tollhouse would move its offices into the building, Fix said, becoming an anchor tenant.

– A Bellingham-based group led by developers James Willson and John Blethen, whose plan emphasizes office and business use over residential units in the Granary. This proposal was made public last year, Blethen presented an architectural illustration of the plans during a port commission meeting in fall 2012.

Holding on the Granary

The Granary Building proposals were the subject of debate among port commissioners last month.

Commissioner Michael McAuley said, during a Nov. 5 work session, that the commission should make a decision on the Granary Building now.

“I don’t want to delay any longer on what we decide to do with that building,” McAuley said.

Yet Fix said the port staff’s recommendation to the commission is to choose a master developer for the site first, adding that a master developer would not be the one making a decision on the Granary, but should provide input to commissioners.

Fix said that two of the three firms have expressed reservations about plans to restore the Granary Building, mainly due to the fact that the building’s location will serve as a prominent entry point to their developments in the Waterfront District, should they be approved.

Commissioner Scott Walker said he thinks the master developer should have a say in what happens to the Granary Building, due to the grand scale of the development and the amount of money the master developer will need to spend on any project.

He doesn’t want to start breaking up the development of the site before a master developer is chosen, he said. He worried that the companies vying to take the master developer role would be scared off if the port starts making decisions on the property, especially such an important piece.

“If you don’t let the master developer have a say in this, you’re going to lose some of them right off the bat, for sure,” Walker said.

McAuley pressed his argument, saying the port needs to act on the building now. He said the Granary Building represents an asset that can be put to effective use, and one which the community has made clear it wants brought back to life.

Once marked for demolition due to its decrepit state, the Granary Building was saved last year after port commissioners reversed course following public outcry to keep the building. The building is seen by many to be a historical icon of Bellingham’s waterfront.

Despite the debate last month, the port commission did not make a decision on the building.

Fix further defended the choice to hold on the Granary until a master developer was picked during comments he made Nov. 7 during a waterfront work session of City Council’s Committee of the Whole.

“I think it is out of sequence to start doing the Granary Building now when its the grand entrance to the 10 acres,” Fix said.

Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville, who has taken part in the master-developer review process, said she is inclined to prefer a developer that wants to have a close relationship with the city and port.

“Certainly, we want a master developer who wants to be a partner,” Linville said Nov. 7.

Fix also gave a message of approval on the waterfront plans to City Council members.

“We’ve got a great project here. I think it has a lot of potential to go forward,” he said. “It has some momentum right now, so I’m excited for the next couple of years.”

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

A version of this article appears on page one of the December edition of The Bellingham Business Journal. The online version has been updated with more current information that was not available prior to the last press deadline. 

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