The waterfront: three citizens, three ideas

Dan Hiestand
   Undoubtedly, the redevelopment of the waterfront will reshape the face of Bellingham for future generations to come. The Bellingham Business Journal recently sat down with three community leaders to ask them what their feelings on the waterfront redevelopment are, and what they would do if they were in control of the project.

John Blethen, the owner of New Whatcom Interiors, worked with local architect David Christensen and other residents to come up with a plan that he feels best reflects the work done by the Waterfront Futures Group.

Mark Buehrer
Occupation: Civil engineer
Background: Resident of Bellingham since 1987, active in various committees and organizations in the city; founder of 2020 Engineering.
   Why is the waterfront issue important?
   “It really sets the stage for what Bellingham is going to become and evolve into in the future,” Buehrer said. “It’s a very visible point, and it’s the center of our community.”
   How have you been active regarding the waterfront?
   Buehrer has attended several of the waterfront public meetings, and — of his own accord — developed his own set of design concept plans for the area; his plan was one of a dozen site plan ideas submitted to the Waterfront Advisory Group; he also presented that design concept to the group.
   What are the three most important elements any waterfront plan should consider?
   1) Define the givens: “When you look at doing a development or a project, the first thing you need to do is develop the constraints of what the limitations are and what the possibilities are,” he said. This includes defining potential uses of areas — such as residential, industrial, commercial or retail — and determining what physical features will need to be altered. “I’ve seen some of the plans that show (the power plant) gone,” he said. “That’s a significant facility there. If you are going to design for it, or not for it, it makes a big difference in what your site will be.”
   2) Define clearly the level of sustainable-type design to be done: “I think it’s important to have a balance, whenever you do a project — especially in an area like this, where it’s important to have an environmental design — but I think the priority needs to be focused on the economics of it,” he said. “You need to look at what is economically viable, and you pursue that.” Buehrer’s design concept would also implement a grid system featuring street layouts oriented in a north-south/east-west pattern so buildings could be positioned to take advantage of solar gains, and all new development would incorporate construction standards in accordance with the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System.
   3) Integrate design with activities that will occur on the site: “You should have as much separation as possible from automobiles/vehicles and pedestrian corridors and bike paths,” he said. Mixed-use development — with residential upper floors and retail/commercial lower floors — can help make this vision a reality, he said. A model for this vision is already coming into existence in the South Lake Union area of Seattle, where Paul Allen’s company, Vulcan, Inc., owns 60 acres of land being used for sustainable development, he said. Buehrer said his company worked with Vulcan to help develop criteria for sustainable development in that area.
   How would your plan be unique? The centerpiece for Buehrer’s design concepts for the area includes a 200- to 300-foot-wide “Sunset Boulevard,” which would run through the heart of the property, starting near the Farmers Market in the east and running directly west to a pier on the water. The walkway, he said, would feature unobstructed views of the water from the market area, as well as a series of cascading waterfalls with water pumped in through a pipeline running from Lake Whatcom that was previously used to feed water to the pulp plant. While the walkway’s appearance would be impressive, it would also incorporate concepts supporting sustainability, he said. “(The water) could be tapped, and generate electricity with a turbine — and then that water could be used for creating fountains and water features that would flow down this big boulevard,” he said. “You could take that water and make it into a more modernistic-type of water feature, or you could make it like a natural feature.”


John Blethen
Occupation: Owner, New Whatcom Interiors
Background: Former chairman of the Bellingham Parks and Recreation Board; appointed to the Waterfront Futures Group by the city; former board member of the Bellingham Bay Foundation; member of the Greenway Advisory Committee; lived in Bellingham since 1969.
   Why is the waterfront issue important?
   “I felt we needed to represent the work that the Waterfront Futures Group did,” he said. “We’re re-shaping the waterfront like it has never been done before,” he said. “It has not been an area that people could go to, and we have a chance now to bring the community back to the waterfront. There is a natural component, and we have a chance of changing the balance there, and we probably can create some good, high-paying jobs. It’s got a lot of issues that are important.”
   How have you been active regarding the waterfront?
   Blethen worked with Bellingham architect David Christensen, and — along with several other community members — came up with a concept design. “It really reflects a whole lot of people’s work,” he said. “(We) dragged up a bunch of stuff from the Waterfront Futures that we felt had not been characterized by the port-hired plans. I really felt we could do better, and I think we did better.”
   What are the three most important elements any waterfront plan should consider?
   1) Cleanup: “It needs to be safe. I think the expectation is the site is safe. There are some pretty heavy contaminations of mercury there … and there is some other toxic waste left over from the G-P legacy,” he said. “I’m sure we will work our way through to a safe waterfront … The assumption that was made by the Waterfront Futures was that the contamination issues would be addressed by professionals … It needs to be cleaned up safely, and done in a logical fashion.”
   2) Public access: “There needs to be a system of open space, and there need to be trails and linkages so that all the citizens of Bellingham and Whatcom County can enjoy the waterfront.”
   3) A balance between nature and development: “Part of the area probably needs to not have people. If we are really going to talk about re-introducing animals into the waterfront, then we probably need some areas where people can maybe just overlook, and not necessarily touch.”
   How would your plan be unique?
   “Access to the waterfront — that’s the most exciting thing,” he said. “People haven’t been able to get to the waterfront in forever, and they are starving to get there. Once we create an over-water corridor that allows you to move from the south side all the way around to north side of town, it’s going to really change how people use this town.”


Michelle Long, 34
Occupation: Executive director, Sustainable Connections
Background: Moved to Bellingham five years ago; former board member of the Bellingham Bay Foundation; works with husband, Derek Long, program and development director at Sustainable Connections and a member of the Waterfront Advisory Group.
   Why is the waterfront issue important?
   “It’s a massive piece of land on a prime piece of beautiful water in a great downtown. It will shape everything else,” she said. “This community, which is already a wonderful place, will be taken to a whole new level.”
   What are the three most important elements any waterfront plan should consider?
   1) Sustainable, environmentally-conscious development: “The Waterfront Futures Group made a lot of really clear points in their early recommendations that they wanted to have things like providing incentives and credits for green buildings; incorporate LEED design in all design and construction; on-site renewable energy. You know, building it all very green.”
   2) Pedestrian friendliness: “Most people in this community care about (the waterfront) being pedestrian friendly,” Long said. “I want to be able to walk from downtown to Fairhaven along the waterfront, and to be able to engage with the waterfront … Don’t let any cars by (the water). I think it’s horrible when you have the water, a narrow strip of beach and then a car.”
   3) Make the site unique and complementary to downtown: “The premium dollar is not going to be paid for homes that are near chain stores,” she said. “It’s not going to attract tourists to our one-of-a-kind place. (It should be) a chain-free zone, more of the unique, one-of-a-kind businesses that complement downtown.” Government and education facilities located on the waterfront should have the ability to engage the public at all levels, she said. “They should complement downtown but be attractions so the community can engage … Why have a bastion of classrooms that me, the average citizen, walks around? Instead, make it the stuff that (a normal citizen) would want to do.”
   What’s an example of good development?
   Long is very impressed with a development that is currently under way in Victoria, B.C., called Dockside Green. That project, being developed on 15 acres of former industrial land adjacent to the Upper Harbor and downtown areas of Victoria, will feature mixed residential, office, retail and industrial spaces. Most of the proposed developments on the site would meet the standards of Canadian LEED Platinum certification requirements — the highest level of LEED certification. “That’s what I would love us to be modeling ourselves after,” she said. “They are doing amazing things there.”



Related Stories