Setbacks and the site’s ‘amorphous’ nature make marketing a challenge
Marketing a 220-acre industrial site with major cleanup issues is not the easiest task.
Especially given the fact that the waterfront site still has no official cleanup or master plan and may include 200-foot setbacks that could, according to port officials, preclude any successful marketing efforts.
As port officials maneuver their way through the initial attempts to market the waterfront redevelopment site to potential developers, one thing is important to remember, said port real estate director Lydia Bennett.
“It’s an area that is amorphous,” she said. While the end result will probably be a mix of uses, she said, “It’s all floating in the ether right now.”
Indeed, the site still must adopt a final EIS, shoreline rules, master plan and development agreement before it truly takes shape, and that makes marketing the site a challenge.
The initial marketing effort is a joint undertaking by port Communications Manager Carolyn Casey, who is trying to bring cohesion and identity to the area despite its nebulousness, and Bennett, who is making and maintaining contact with interested players, including potential developers and tenants.
“Right now, we have to remember it’s an industrial-zoned site,” Casey said. The community is lucky, she said, that Western Washington University has expressed such firm interest in the site, as other regional communities have spent thousands of dollars to attract universities to redevelopment projects.
In addition to its website, the port has some brochures and other marketing material that feature renderings of the envisioned site first presented to the public as part of last September’s draft framework plan and financial analysis. The port has also produced a short promotional DVD.
Bennett said she has received many inquiries from local, regional and national developers, from locations such as Phoenix, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Vancouver, B.C., and has given five or six tours of the site to such developers.
In January, the port hosted an open house for about 12 developers that featured speeches from Western’s President Karen Morse and Bellingham Mayor Tim Douglas, Bennett said.
Bennett also routinely updates other key players that have expressed strong interest in the site, such as the Northwest Discovery Project — responsible for the proposed TerrAquarium — and the Bellingham/Whatcom Housing Authority, as well as NOAA — the federal agency port officials have been wooing to relocate from Seattle to Bellingham.
Bennett said the plan is to keep the various parties interested and up to date while things move along with the planning process. She said the port will host another developer meeting in the fall.
Meanwhile, the port has contracted with a Seattle-based consulting group, Fusion LLC, to develop a comprehensive marketing plan for the project, including communications material, naming and branding. The port and city of Bellingham are splitting the $60,000 fee for the study.
As part of the study, the group is trying to determine a new name for the waterfront by answering the question: In 10 years, if you were on the waterfront site and your phone rang, where would you tell the caller you were?
The site has been loosely referred to as “New Whatcom” for several years, but Casey said the name hasn’t caught on with the community, and people tend not to like it.
The group is looking at what the most natural and authentic name would be. Casey said she could not reveal the possible name options at this time.
In coming up with a new name, the group has examined Waterfront Futures Group and Waterfront Advisory Group material as well as interviewed almost 40 community members and officials from the port, city, WAG, RE Sources, Sustainable Connections, real estate firms, Western, the Northwest Discovery Project and the Whatcom Transportation Authority, as well as architects and developers.
The group is also working to identify distinct marketing points that will set the development apart from others. These could include the obvious waterfront aspect of the site, but also the environmental cleanup effort, the urban and working nature of the waterfront, the presence of Western’s Huxley College and technology consortium, and the proposed Marine Trade Center.
A possible ‘setback’ setback
Both Casey and Bennett say marketing efforts may be hindered in their success by the 200-foot shoreline setbacks for portions of the waterfront site proposed by the city’s planning commission as part of the city’s shoreline master plan.
If the 200-foot setbacks on the site are adopted, Bennett said they could reduce the economic viability of the project by roughly $9 million by reducing the area available for development as well as the element of being on the water that attracts many developers.
Casey said 200-foot setbacks are too far from the water’s edge. For example, Anthony’s Restaurant is currently 40 feet from the shore. By comparison, a 200-foot setback is larger than the width of a standard American football field, she said.
Casey and Bennett said the city planning staff’s recommendation of 50-foot setbacks on the site are much more appropriate.
Proponents of the setbacks argue that they could be reduced during the master planning process.
Jim Bishop, chairman of the city’s planning commission, said the 200-foot setbacks along the site were not intended to be a firm line, but as more of a baseline. He said the commission expects setbacks to be reduced in places during the master planning process.
But Casey and Bennett said changing the setbacks during the master planning process could leave the port vulnerable to lawsuits and would make the site’s feasibility unpredictable to developers.
Bishop said he couldn’t understand why the port was particularly worried about lawsuits over the setback issue.
“As a planning commission, we make decisions all the time people would want to sue us for. It’s beyond me why someone would want to sue over this issue,” he said. “I think the port could be sued for a lot of things, but just because of 200-foot setbacks — I don’t see why they would get sued for that.”
Bishop said that access to the water and open space along the waterfront was the number one thing the planning commission heard from the community, and thinks the planning commission’s shoreline plan would offer that.
“That would help the port develop the site,” he said. “As a developer, that would be very attractive to me.”
But Casey disagreed.
“The bottom line is that it is a publicly held asset,” Casey said. “And we should make sure it’s economically viable.”
For more information on Western Washington University’s efforts to move to the waterfront, read our cover story. Click here
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