PDA lays out strategy for city properties

Tasked with developing city-owned properties, the Bellingham Public Development Authority has outlined how it plans to improve five downtown sites....

By Isaac Bonnell

When the Bellingham Public Development Authority (BPDA) was created in 2008 and tasked with developing city-owned properties, the first question was where to start.

The initial idea for starting the BPDA was to develop city property that is part of the 220-acre waterfront redevelopment project, but the scope has since grown to include five sites: Cornwall Beach on the waterfront, a parking lot at Cornwall and Maple streets, the Federal Building downtown, the Army Street parcel, and a parcel at 600 W. Holly St., also known as the old ReStore site.

Last month, the BPDA board of directors outlined for the first time a strategic plan for undertaking the daunting task of improving all five properties, which are all in various stages of development.

“The purpose of this [strategic plan] is to evaluate the properties that are to be transfered to the public development authority,” said BPDA Executive Director James Long. “We have limited time and staff, so we’re looking for a strategy that allows us to move forward on all five projects concurrently.”

Long described the plan as a management tool that will help the group focus its time and energy on projects that have the highest benefit to the community. To assess each property, the group came up with preliminary plans for each project and scored them against a list of goals and objectives.

The analysis also considers any environmental remediation, land acquisition or public infrastructure that would be needed for development to proceed.

“It’s a long way from a definitive development plan on any of these projects,” Long said. “There’s still a good deal of information that we don’t know.”

In all, the five properties included in the strategic plan total more than 21 acres of land on which roughly 100,000 square feet of buildings currently exists. Most of these sites are vacant or underutilized with depreciated structures, according to the report.

Conceptual plans

The plan is to develop each project in such a way as to spur private development in that area — all with an overarching concept or master plan. The goal is to parlay these 21 acres into developments of 45 to 50 acres with a potential of 1.75 million square feet of building over the next 20 to 25 years.

“We focus on place-making concepts,” Long said. “We initiate the concept and see if there’s interest.”

Here are the basic plans and descriptions of each site, ranked in order of priority in the strategic plan:

1. Army Street: Located next to a street right-of-way that was never built, this small 0.4-acre parcel has a very strategic location at the juncture of downtown, Old Town and the waterfront.

The plan is to include several surrounding parcels owned by eight different land owners, including the Port of Bellingham and Trillium Corp., for a total acreage of about 20 acres — much of it on the waterfront — to create a large mixed-use development that would draw activity to the area. Conceptual plans include a four to five-level parking structure along the bluff, adaptive reuse of The Granary for a conference center, urban plazas and up to 1.5 million square feet of mixed-use space.

2. 600 W. Holly St.: This 2.1-acre site was the former location of the ReStore building, which was demolished in 2009.

The plan is to develop it for institutional use by BTC, Western and Northwest Indian College and serve as a logical expansion of the North Puget Sound Clean Ocean Research facility next to the site. Should this institutional use not work out, the next idea is for a mixed-use building, but that depends on the timing of a relocation of nearby Northwest Recycling.

3. Cornwall/Maple project: The city purchased this 0.7-acre gravel lot in 2008 with plans to build another parking garage.

The new conceptual plan is for a single mixed-use building with excess parking to meet demand for public parking in the area. Development on this site isn’t likely to drive more development on the waterfront site or downtown, but could complement other projects, Long said.

4. Cornwall Beach: This project encompasses three parcels of land: the five-acre R.G. Haley parcel, which the city recently acquired; a six-acre parcel that is jointed-owned 51/49 percent by the port and city; and a seven-acre site owned by the state that is managed by the port.

This proposed project would create a new park and would coincide with the master plan for the waterfront redevelopment project. There is also a possibility of using four acres of the site for private development, such as office or institutional space.

These properties are contaminated and will require extensive environmental cleanup, which could take upward of two years.

5. Federal Building: Built in 1913 and purchased by the city in 2004, this three-story historic building has approximately 45,000 square feet of space. Less than one-third of the building is currently occupied.
Management of the building has already been conveyed to the development authority; the city is retaining ownership.

The plan is to renovate and update the building to create separate tenant spaces. Some mitigation of lead and asbestos will be required.

The next step

While the strategic plan is a major step for an organization that is just getting on its feet, the BPDA still has a long way to go.

“Overall, I like where they’re going, but there are still challenges,” Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike said.

Focusing on the Army Street site is a good place to start, Pike said, because it is at the nexus of three districts and it has the potential to spur development on the waterfront — something many citizens have been waiting to see happen.

Now that the BPDA has a strategy for tackling all five projects, the group will start diving into the finer details of each project and working with the private sector to get development started as soon as possible.

The strategic plan will be updated every year to account for changes in the market, the addition of new projects, or new development ideas. But for a first step, Long said the strategic plan is quite comprehensive and does a good job of guiding the work of the BPDA.

“This [strategic plan] is for setting the context for what is to come,” Long said. “After all, where you end up is a function of where you start.”

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