The port and the city seem to be getting themselves all worked up for a fight, and if it comes to a head, it is the community that will lose.
Things got tense in April as the city, led by Mayor Dan Pike, and port commissioners squared off over both the density of the waterfront redevelopment site and the street layout. Pike is advocating that the port slow down the process and have more modest ambitions for the build out. His plan would call for 4 million feet of development and a street layout that would be an extension of downtown.
The port, however, is advocating for a denser 6-million-foot build out and a street grid that is angled toward the west to take advantage of better views and natural sunlight. Both sides acknowledge that whatever happens will take decades to complete.
Pike is doing his job and looking out for the fiscal health of the city government, and he should be admired for that. In the current state of the slowing economy, it is prudent to err on the side of caution, and Pike is looking at potentially challenging financial times in the near future. In his first six months in office he is proving himself to be a strong and bold leader.
That aside, however, it is difficult to ignore the frustrations of the port commissioners as they negotiate with a new mayor and new City Council. When the port originally entered into the agreement to take over the Georgia-Pacific property in exchange for environmental clean-up costs, it did so with the understanding that they had the commitment and support from the city to help burden the costs and build infrastructure. While the port would eventually sell most of its property to pay for clean-up and development costs, the city’s incentive for paying upfront was the probability of reaping decades and perhaps centuries of tax income from a potentially lucrative mixed-use redevelopment.
Now the port commissioners feel they have been left holding the bag, while the city’s newly elected officials change city policy and renegotiate the deal. Each year that goes by, the port pays millions of dollars in insurance fees for the site, and they have a timeline to move things forward.
We cannot forget that the port is a public agency as well, and while it is a tenth of the operational size of the city, it has no choice but to see this development through, one way or another. While one can nearly hear the desperation and veiled threat when port officials talk about the possibility of just giving up and leaving the site heavy industrial, that possibility is unlikely to happen. If the city and the port can’t figure out how to resolve their differences and work cooperatively on the waterfront, however, then the port may be forced to make financial decisions that years down the road our community will see as unfortunate mistakes. And of course, history will blame current port officials for being shortsighted.
A redevelopment of this size takes vision, bravery and supportive cooperation, and those who have been involved in the process over the past several years — including hundreds of members of the public who have participated in the countless public forums — seem to recognize these facts.
Let’s hope our elected leaders at both the city and the port can reach agreement and address their short-term concerns so they can do what’s best for the entire community for decades to come.
by Rik Dalvit