Port releases 1,300-page draft EIS

Draft Environmental Impact Statement to help guide final master plan for site


Mike Stoner, environmental director for the Port of Bellingham, peeks between the two volumes of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the former G-P site. The port released the 1,300-page document in early January and will host a public hearing about the document on Feb. 20.


In the past several years, countless ideas have been tossed around about what to do with the old Georgia-Pacific site. As great or not great as they may be, these ideas are still just sketches on a chalkboard and are far from actually breaking ground.

Last month, however, the Port of Bellingham released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the proposed waterfront redevelopment project, the first major step toward redeveloping the waterfront. This document is the culmination of more than a year of research by the port and several independent consultants and includes all of the potential environmental impacts of developing the site one way or another, whether that entails 20-story, mixed use buildings or continued heavy industrial uses.

In essence, all of the ideas and their potential impacts have been amassed into this one report and tested to see if they will work. And the results are good news for the port.

“The Draft EIS tells us that [mixed-use redevelopment] is a feasible project, and once we get the new designs mapped out, we will be able to estimate the costs and understand whether it’s an affordable project,” said Mike Stoner, director of environmental programs for the port. “So this grand idea that we came up with a couple years ago with the Waterfront Futures Group looks like it is in fact one that we can pull off if we keep moving it forward and solve the problems we need to solve.”

Reading the document, though, is not something to do in one sitting. From the front cover all the way to Appendix O, the Draft EIS weighs in at 1,300 pages and comes bound in two, four-inch-thick stacks.

“You could work out with the thing,” Stoner said.

So what does the EIS accomplish? How does it get us closer to a finalized plan for the waterfront?

The Draft EIS tests the ideas that were laid out in the 2006 draft framework plan. This preliminary design included such ideas as an aquarium, a footbridge over the Whatcom Waterway, a marina, buildings for Western Washington University, a marine trades center and numerous parks.


Testing the full range of possibilities

To test these ideas, five alternatives were designed to represent a full range of possible development, from no action to a high-density, mixed-use urban center. The components of each alternative are:

Alternative 1: higher density. This alternative assumes approximately 7.5 million square feet of total mixed-use floor space will be built during a 20-year period.

Approximately half of that space, roughly 3,000 units, will be residential. Maximum building heights would range from 15 to 20 stories tall. This alternative also has the most parks and trails, with 33 acres.

Alternative 2: medium density: This alternative is similar to the existing conditions in the historic Fairhaven district. It assumes a build-out of 6 million square feet of mixed-use floor space, including 2,350 residential units. The railroad currently cutting through the site would be relocated to the eastern tracks, closer to the bluff, within the next 10 years.Maximum building heights would range from 12 to 14 stories. Parks and trails would get 24 acres.

Alternative 2A: medium density with delayed railroad relocation. This alternative is similar to Alernative 2 in density but has a longer timeline for relocating the railroad to the eastern set of tracks.

Alternative 3: lower density. This alternative assumes 4 million square feet of mixed use floor space, including 1,325 residential units. Fifteen acres of parks and trails would be set aside. This alternative also assumes that the railroad would not be relocated.

Alternative 4: no action. This alternative assumes that no changes are made to the site’s zoning and it remains an industrial site.

Several proposed development projects may still proceed under the current zoning, such as improvements to the shipping terminal and the creation of a new marina.

New industrial uses for the site would be considered. There is no height limit under the current zoning. No parks or trails would be created.


A preferred alternative?

For Robyn du Pré, executive director of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities and a member of the Waterfront Advisory Group, the one thing missing from the list of alternatives is a preferred alternative.

Without a preferred alternative, du Pré said that the community doesn’t have a platform from which to judge the other alternatives.

“If we all as a community agree on this alternative and we know what the impacts are going to be, then we know what we’re going to get,” du Pré said. “Now, [without a preferred alternative] we don’t really know what we’re going to get.”

Sometimes, though, predictability can come at the expense of creativity, especially when it comes to building design standards, said developer Ted Mischaikov, who was also a member of the Waterfront Futures Group. With such an amazing location, Mischaikov said he would like to see some new and different architectural ideas be considered, something that will make people talk.

“I don’t believe people are trying to make it boring — I just fear that it will become that way from people trying to create predictability,” he said. “I don’t think anyone wants something that’s so prescriptive that it’s got a Disney-esque feel.”

When most projects go into environmental review, there is already a proposed plan for how to develop the site. With the waterfront, however, a specific development or master plan has yet to be determined. In fact, Stoner said a preferred alternative was purposefully left out.

“We did that deliberately because we wanted to test a variety of different ideas,” Stoner said, adding that the EIS will help guide the creation of the master plan.

“Some people are looking at this draft EIS with the expectation that this is the next version of the master plan and it’s absolutely not. What we’re asking people with this draft is to make sure that we haven’t missed anything important.”

In a letter addressed to Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike and City Councilmembers, the Port Commission expressed an interest in pursuing a medium-density alternative.

Finalizing an EIS with a preferred alternative is not required, said local architect Dave Chistensen, but it is uncommon. But then again, redeveloping a large, downtown waterfront site is also uncommon.

“I think people think this is an environmental impact statement on a set plan,” Christensen said, adding that not all reviews include a set plan. “It’s done both ways — it’s done beforehand or when a specific plan is evaluated.”


From EIS to breaking ground

To get from the Draft EIS to the master plan, the EIS must first be finalized. After 60 days of public comment, the document will be re-evaluated and updated to show new information, if any is needed. It will also include all the of the public comments and responses to those comments.

“It will be an even thicker document,” Stoner said.

Once approved, the final EIS will then act as a reference document for the drafting of the master plan, which is expected to be finished by this summer. The master plan, which will be produced by the Seattle-based architectural firm CollinsWoerman with input from port and city staff, will specify a road grid, parks and zoning changes for the site. Essentially, the master plan is the goal for redevelopment for the next 20 years.

The draft master plan will then go before the Bellingham Planning Commission, where it will be open for review and public scrutiny.

At that point the Planning Commission will make recommendations to the City Council whether to adopt the plan and make the necessary changes to the City Comprehensive Plan. Concurrently, the port will need to approve the plan and update to their Comprehensive Scheme of Harbor Improvements, a process that is also open to public comment.

If all goes smoothly, Stoner said, he expects this process could wrap up within this year. After years of working on the chalkboard, this could be the year when projects start to take shape.

“It feels to me like we’re really poised for action,” Stoner said. “We’re ready to take all this good new information [in the EIS], adjust our ideas, and then come up with a draft master plan later this spring. And then we’re off and running.”


Where to read the Draft EIS

Copies of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement are available to view at the Bellingham Central Library, the Port of Bellingham, and the city’s Planning Office. Individual copies may be purchased at the port’s administrative offices for $120. A free electronic copy is also available on CD.

The DEIS can also be reviewed online at www.portofbellingham.com.

For a quick overview of the document, read the fact sheet, which comes before the table of contents, or flip through the summary in Chapter 1.


Public comment

A public hearing for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement will be held Feb. 20 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and from 6 p.m. to closing at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal.

The Waterfront Advisory Group will meet Feb. 6 at 6 p.m. at the Harbor Center Room at the port’s main offices to discuss the Draft EIS and the upcoming master planning process.

All public comments must be received by the port by March 10.


Draft EIS components

The Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the former G-P site examines 14 categories, which are standard among most environmental reviews, and assesses the potential impact of development for each category. The categories are listed below with a brief list of specific topics discussed in each section.

1) Earth: seismic activity, sea level rising, soil contamination, bridge access to the site.
2) Air quality: relocating PSE Encogen facility, future traffic and marine vessel emissions.
3) Water resources: erosion, stormwater control, possible contaminants.
4) Plants and animals: greenways and parks, aquatic habitat, effect on salmon, wetlands.
5) Environmental health: compares level of cleanup actions for each alternative.
6) Noise: construction activities, noise of urban site compared to industrial site, train noise.
7) Land use: activity level of mixed-use site, shoreline uses, future build out.
8) Relationship to plans and policies: City Comprehensive Plan, state and local regulations.
9) Population, employment, housing: projected population, type of housing units and jobs.
10) Aesthetics/light and glare: view corridors, development standards, new light sources.
11) Historical and cultural resources: old buildings, natural shoreline, archaeological resources.
12) Transportation: construction traffic, alternative transportation, trail system, parking.
13) Public services: fire and police, school districts, parks and trails, street maintenance.
14) Utilities: replacement of water, sewer, electrical, and natural gas lines, future infrastructure.
Source: Port of Bellingham

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