Waterfront planning hits rough seas

By Isaac Bonnell

After four years of planning and community discussions, the waterfront redevelopment project came to a dead stop last month as port and city officials battled over the last remaining hurdles of this complex project.

Some say the impasse was in the making back in January when the city took issue with the port over the draft environmental impact statement (EIS). Hints of a souring relationship also arose over the summer as the port and city worked on separate site plans with different street grids.

By October, the conflict was clear. The city file a lawsuit against the port to halt the demolition of three brick buildings formerly operated by Georgia-Pacific. And by mid-November, frustrations had escalated to a point that caused the port to suspend its master planning work and step away from redevelopment plans.

For many residents following the slow and complex process of creating a mixed-use urban area on the former industrial site, the fallout may feel sudden. How could years of work by the city, the port and countless citizens digress so quickly?

Any relationship, even an official agreement between governments, is vulnerable to the negative effects of poor communication. Small issues quickly escalate and pretty soon both sides become unwavering in their opinion.

“It’s unfortunate that this ‘tit for tat’ has happened,” said Bruce Shepard, president of Western Washington University. “I’ve never found it helpful to question people’s motives, and sadly some of that has been going on.”

Shepard said he is confident, though, that this situation can be resolved. Both parties agree on many items, from park space to the total build-out of 6 million square feet.

“I really do believe that people’s motives are good,” Shepard said. “There is common ground — they’re just in different businesses and they don’t have an easy time seeing the other’s perspective. The city is good at building a city, and the port is good at economic development.”

Amidst all of the recent finger pointing and hurt feelings, the real issue has emerged: the development agreement. Not much has been said about this document which codifies the design standards established in the master plan, but it’s apparent that this is the major sticking point to continuing the project.

The coming weeks will tell if this issue is resolvable — or if it’s a deal-breaker.

How it all started

For most onlookers, the first sign of conflict appeared in September when Mayor Dan Pike unveiled the city’s Waterfront Connections Plan. This design is based on a traditional straight street grid that extends the existing downtown and incorporates the remaining brick buildings.

At the same time, port officials began pushing for a demolition permit to raze three of these old buildings. They argued that without the adjoining tissue mill, which is currently being demolished by G-P, these buildings would be worth little and left with large holes in the structures.

“Those buildings are in the worst condition of any of the brick buildings,” said port Executive Director Jim Darling. “In fact, one will just be a partial building once the mill is gone.”

The port also argued that they would be able to save thousands of dollars by demolishing those buildings now while the contractor is still onsite, rather than at a later date.

Also, the port’s proposed waterfront plan, in which the street grid is angled east to west out onto the site, calls for those buildings to be demolished. The only brick structures that fit into the port’s plan are the two tan-colored storage tanks that look like silos.

Thus began the conflict over the street grid and preserving historic buildings.

After the city sued the port in October to stop them from demolishing the brick buildings, it seemed the deeper issue was the street grid.

The city hosted a series of presentations at the end of October and into November, during which both plans were discussed. And even though the city’s special-projects coordinator, Sati Mookherjee, made it clear back when the plan was first presented to City Council that “the city projects team is not advocating one plan over another,” the conversations had since digressed to the port’s preferred plan versus the city’s preferred plan.

But this was not how Mayor Pike said he intended to use the Waterfront Connections Plan.

“When we put out the city’s road grid, that was not intended to be the ‘be-all and end-all’ network,” Pike said. “It was just intended to be a bookend to the port’s rotated grid, so if there was a full analysis of each done in the EIS then at the end of the day the community could look at the different opportunities and cherry-pick what would be best for the community.”

Pike said he always expected to end up with a hybrid of the two plans — something along the lines of the plan drawn up by local architect Dave Christensen and developer John Blethen.

Then came the letters

Once both street grids were analyzed under the supplemental draft EIS, the port released the document for public comment.

As is common for city staff to do, the mayor submitted a letter to the State Environmental Protection Agency expressing the opinion of city staff. Combined with the existing conflict over the street grid, this letter would ultimately be the last straw for port commissioners.

In his letter, Pike makes several assertions:

  • The transportation plan is inadequate for the planned 6 million square feet of development.
  • The rotated street grid and the traditional grid were not fairly studied.
  • The analysis of historic buildings is disingenuous and goes against the port’s actions to demolish the buildings.
  • The images depicting density and views are misleading.
  • And the level of detail in the supplemental draft EIS is not sufficient enough to support a Planned Action Ordinance.

The Planned Action Ordinance is a document that the city will use to ensure that the environmental review required by the state is covered in the site-wide EIS. So if a proposed building does not have any impacts beyond what is outlined in the EIS, then no further study will be required. On the other hand, if a building falls outside of the boundaries set in the Planned Action Ordinance, it will need additional review.

With the sensitive issue of the development agreement on the table, the port commission responded with a letter of their own in which they expressed a feeling that the city has “fundamentally changed its direction on the waterfront redevelopment project.”

Based on the city’s letter, the commission said that “the Port must take a step back to re-evaluate how we move forward with the least possible risk to taxpayers.”

With the master planning process now at a standstill, the Waterfront Advisory Group chose not to meet that week and the first community meeting on Nov. 13 was not attended by the port.

Restoring confidence

The tension did not last long, though.

Both sides came together at the second community forum on Nov. 17 and at a port commission meeting Nov. 18. During the port’s meeting, commissioner Scott Walker addressed the crowd — which included Pike and City Council members Barbara Ryan, Jack Weiss and Barry Buchanan — and called for both sides to recommit to the 2004 interlocal agreement that first brought the organizations together.

Walker pointed out that the document calls for the port and city to work collaboratively to finalize a development plan that “will be the final land use and shoreline permit approval document for the development of the New Whatcom Subzone,” now generally referred to as the waterfront district.

Ryan, who was one of the original council members to sign the agreement in 2004, said she doesn’t think the city has strayed from the agreement, but restoring confidence in the port-city relationship could be beneficial at this point.

“If it makes them comfortable to have City Council reaffirm the agreement, then by all means, let’s move forward,” she said after the commission meeting. “It’s probably useful to sit down and talk about what that agreement means. We knew that the master plan would lay out the vision and the development agreement would lay out the finer details. But maybe we’re having a difference of definitions of terms.”

Indeed, little has been mentioned this year about the development agreement, and both the city and the port seem to have their own ideas for what this document should include and when it should be completed.

Though much of the development details will already be included in the EIS and the master plan, the development agreement will provide an additional level of regulatory certainty that is necessary to attract private developers, said Darling.

“You can’t get it in the master plan,” he said. “Where you get the regulatory predictability is in comprehensive development regulations. We need both of those (the master plan and the development agreement) in place at the same time. This is much different from phasing. Of course the project will be built in phases as the market grows. But it doesn’t mean you develop the regulatory system in phases.”

Pike argues that the city can’t sign off on an agreement for the whole site, but could agree on a set of regulations for the first 3 million square feet of development.

“To fully entitle a project, you have to understand every possible project idea that might come down the line,” Pike said. “I am not going to pretend to anticipate what the environment is going to look like in terms of projects that might be brought forward 20 or 30 years from now.”

Moving forward

Now that the air has cleared and both sides seem to be willing to work out their differences, the discussion will focus mainly on the development agreement. In reality, that has been the focus throughout the conflict.

Pike said his concerns about the supplemental draft EIS that he described in his letter were based on the relationship of the EIS to the planned action ordinance.

“To get to the Planned Action Ordinance), you need a certain level of detail in your EIS and I feel that it is not there yet,” he said. “And comments made on an EIS are meant to strengthen an EIS.”

For Mike Stoner, the port’s environmental director, the issue isn’t about asking the city to do something beyond its means. It is about keeping the development process as simple as possible.

“What we want the community and our partners to know is that we aren’t asking the city to bypass their regulatory control in the permitting process,” Stoner said. “We want to make it clear and more understandable and make it a more predictable process for potential developers.”

As of press time, both the port and the city have indicated a willingness to work together to overcome this issue. But resolution could take time.

“I understand the December deadlines, but I don’t know if it will happen that fast,” said WWU’s Shepard. “This is as much a psychological issue as an economic issue and the political process has some ambiguity.

“But I have a lot of confidence that it can be solved.”

Waterfront documents at a glance

Interlocal Agreement: There have been several interlocal agreements over the years, but the one most commonly referred to is the one signed by the city and the port in 2004. This document states the terms of the relationship: Both parties will work together to craft a redevelopment plan for the waterfront.

EIS: The Environmental Impact Statement examines all the potential impacts of varying levels of development on the site, from no action to high density.

Master plan: This is the vision of the project. It lays out the street grid and general design of the site. It also establishes building heights, setbacks and view corridors.

Development Agreement: This document codifies the design standards established in the master plan and is signed off by both the city and the port. It also sets the phasing of infrastructure.

Planned Action Ordinance: Once approved, this document would be used by the city to ensure that the environmental review required by the state is met under the EIS. If a proposed building falls outside of the scope of the ordinance, that building will need its own EIS.

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