The future of the Bellingham waterfront

By Emily Hamann
The Bellingham Business Journal

An excavator ripped through the dilapidated annex of the Granary Building along the waterfront last month.

The demolition paves the way for the remaining structure to be rebuilt into offices and restaurants.

The project along West Chestnut Street is the first to overhaul the former Georgia-Pacific property and surrounding properties, a large swath of land that separates downtown Bellingham from its waterfront.

While the redevelopment of the 237 acres is expected to take decades, the Granary Building serves as the first solid step in a decade-old plan to radically transform the waterfront.


A new vision for the waterfront

Georgia-Pacific pulp and paper company dominated the downtown waterfront since the 1960s.

At its height, 1,200 people worked there. But business declined, and in 2001, the company shut down its pulp-mill operations, laying off 420 workers.

By 2007, Georgia-Pacific shut down the last of its operations, a tissue-manufacturing plant, and pulled out of Bellingham completely.

As Georgia-Pacific was winding down, the Port of Bellingham and the city appointed the citizen-led Waterfront Futures Group to come up with the community’s vision for the entire Bellingham waterfront.

The goals the group came up with included giving people greater access to the waterfront, cleaning up the land and restoring habitat and promote the waterfront economy — including industrial, commercial and residential areas.

In 2005, the Port of Bellingham bought around 137 acres of the former Georgia-Pacific property.

The area that will be the waterfront district is made up of 237 acres, which starts at a bluff along Boulevard and State streets and stops just before the Bellingham Marina along Roeder Avenue.

Under the current master plan, most of the space will be kept for industrial use, but a new 37-acre mixed-use neighborhood will be built, extending from downtown Bellingham.

Even Western Washington University is interested in buying land in the new neighborhood.

In 2013, the city and the port signed on with Ireland-based company Harcourt Developments to develop the new neighborhood.

The Granary Building is the first of Harcourt’s many projects on the waterfront.


The first phase

The Granary Building was built in the 1920s, and was used by the Washington Cooperative Egg & Poultry Association.

Georgia-Pacific bought the building and used it for storage starting in 1970. Since Georgia-Pacific left, the building has fallen into disrepair.

Dampness rotted the interior. The first step, demolition on the annex, is complete. Now construction crews are heading inside, first opening up the boarded up windows, then trying to get in ventilation.

When it’s complete — a job expected to wrap up in the first half of next year — it will be a redeveloped mixed-use building. Current plans call for the first floor to be used for restaurants or retail,  and the upper floors to be used as office space.

Although none of the tenants have been finalized, “there are a number of inquiries from local businesses both small and large,” architect John Reid said. He is a Bellingham architect working with Harcourt to design its section of the waterfront.

So far, there’s been interest from breweries, a number of restaurants, coffee shops, a pizzeria and more.

“It’s all in the mix,” Reid said. “Harcourt is keen to find a cocktail of uses that are appropriate for that building and Bellingham might like.”

During this, the first phase of the redeveloped waterfront, the city will start building two roads, Granary Avenue and Laurel Street, and the first phases of a park along the waterfront.

Plans call for Granary Avenue to enter the waterfront from Chestnut Street, and run parallel to the Whatcom Waterway.

Laurel Street will extend from the existing Laurel Street, and meet Granary Avenue at a 90-degree angle.

The city is still in the planning and permitting phases of those projects.

The city is getting ready to take public comment on plans for both the roads and the park to the public. On the industrial side of the development, the port has already started construction on the new manufacturing facility for Bellingham boat manufacturer All American Marine.

All American Marine expects to move from its current facility in Fairhaven to the new 57,000-square-foot marine trades by the end of this year. As it moves to the new location, All American Marine plans to add 27 employees.


The cleanup effort 

All the industry left behind a significant amount of toxic debris. The state lists six specific cleanup sites inside the waterfront district.

The contamination comes from decades of industrial use, as well as municipal sources.

“There’s a historic city landfill where municipal trash was just dumped into the bay,” port spokesperson Mike Hogan said.

Wood treatment facilities, which ended in the ‘80s, left one of the cleanup sites contaminated with petroleum compounds.

The land where Georgia Pacific operated is contaminated with petroleum, mercury, metals and caustic.

The port is tackling the cleanup. In June, it finished the first phase of cleanup on the Whatcom Waterway.

The rest of cleanup operations will occur side-by-side with construction on the waterfront district, and in some cases construction and cleanup will be tied together.

New foundations can act as a cap over old contaminates.

“What we try to do is integrate the cleanup and redevelopment to the extent that we can,” Hogan said.

The majority of the cleanup should be complete around the next five years, Hogan said. Over the summer, the land will start to look dramatically different.

The port will cap most of the downtown waterfront area with new, clean material. The capping will use gravel and some of the old concrete and other materials that were leftover at the site and will cover up the contaminated dirt.

Once the capping is done, the ground will be a clean slate, ready to be built upon.


Future construction

Harcourt’s second phase of development is still up for debate.

According to the master development agreement Harcourt signed with the port in May 2015, its next project is a development of at least 40,000 square feet. Harcourt is proposing renovating the 200,000-square-foot Board Mill Building into a major hotel and conference center.

“Harcourt has a love of developing older, existing buildings,” Reid said.

In cities in Ireland and the United Kingdom, Harcourt has revitalized a number of old industrial waterfront areas by turning old buildings into luxury hotels.

Harcourt is proposing to spend up to $40 million to renovate the Board Mill Building, and turn it into a 150-room hotel, spa and conference facility with boutique retail space.

“I think it would be with the aspiration of attracting business from the large conferencing market,” Reid said. “From Seattle and Bellevue and places like that as well as Vancouver.”

The conference center would form the cornerstone of the waterfront project, Reid said.

“It is a heartbeat project on the site,” he said. “The scale of the investment will create significant construction jobs in the short term and significant long term jobs, given the scale of the project.”

The board mill building is still owned by the port. Harcourt is supposed to submit the formal proposal for its second project by November.

The board mill building is on land that, under the current plan, is part of the 6 acres set aside for Western. So far, it looks like the school doesn’t need the building, and it will likely get torn down if Western’s plot of land isn’t moved. At a port commission meeting on June 21, two commissioners seemed hesitant to give the approval for the conference center.

“There’s been a lot of shipwrecks with a full sail of wind,” Port Commissioner Bobby Briscoe said. “I have trouble with everything going quite as fast as it is.”

Both Briscoe and Commissioner Michael McAuley said they didn’t think the hotel and conference center would bring back the kind of high-quality and high-paying jobs that they had been trying to bring back to the waterfront since Georgia-Pacific left.

Commissioner Dan Robbins is in favor of the idea.

“I think the Board Mill would be a cornerstone to really get the development moving,” he said.

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