WWU's waterfront plans begin to solidify

School looking at using 10 to 20 acres of former G-P site

Stratus, the consultants hired by WWU to assist in its waterfront planning, has concentrated on two areas on the property: The barking and chipping complex, which is near the water; and the board mill building, which is situated in a more central location near the future Laurel Street extension.

Amy Harder
As planning by the port and city progresses on the former G-P waterfront redevelopment site, Western Washington University’s presence there seems to be moving from a possibility to an almost certainty. Academic departments are researching individual projects and consultants are assessing buildings, researching funding and exploring transportation options.
   Even though actual construction is still years away, the potential for this kind of partnership between the community and WWU has generated a great deal of early planning and discussion, said Port of Bellingham Executive Director Jim Darling.
   “There is a host of things that spin off of the university’s presence in the community,” Darling said. “Having the university on the waterfront puts them more physically into the community, and I think that Western has a desire to strengthen that connection.”
   The 220-acre site contains old warehouses, buildings and complexes that have potential for renovation, as well as areas that will be cleared for new construction.
   Darling said WWU is an important future tenant. Bob Frazier, vice president of external affairs at WWU, estimates that the university will most likely occupy 10 to 20 acres of the former Georgia Pacific property. Frazier coordinates WWU’s efforts with the port, city and other potential partners on the waterfront.
   “At the end of the day, the decision is up to Western on whether or not to invest in the waterfront,” Darling said. “They’re in the process of formulating their ideas, and are going from the general to the specific.”

Lending a helping hand
   Stratus, the consulting company hired to help plan WWU’s presence on the waterfront, has divided the school’s involvement on the property into four major phases, according to Doug Graham, strategic consultant for the company.
   Phase I deals with articulating the school’s vision of what the expanded campus will offer and how it will further the university, Graham said. The waterfront committee at WWU — made up of professors, administrators and deans — has been working on this phase for the past three years.
   The current phase, Phase II, is what Graham refers to as “vision development.” This involves looking at academic proposals and communicating with businesses and agencies for partnerships that will help WWU move the development into Phase III. This phase has been in place for about a year, and will continue for probably another year, Graham said.
   Phase III attempts to answer the specific questions of which buildings will occupy each chosen space. WWU will firm up and document agreements with the port, city and other partnerships the university formed in Phase II. This phase will last about two years, he said, and can begin when Phase II is completed.
   The final phase will consist of bidding, construction and major renovation of buildings and, ultimately, occupancy, Graham said. This will occur a few years after the completion of Phase III.

Summer assessments
   Stratus has been working to assess the bigger picture of what kind of condition the property and its buildings are in, as well as examining individual projects WWU’s academic departments have proposed. Stratus will present a report of their findings in late December or early January.
   “Whenever you’re doing these kind of projects, it’s sort of a redevelopment,” Graham said. “Should we start with a blank slate, or if there is some cultural, historical or architectural value in the buildings, there should be some opportunity to redevelop those as well. Given WWU’s interest in sustainability, there could be an opportunity in a sense to re-invent buildings to find a new life in the 21st century as educational facilities.”
   This summer, $400,000 from the state Legislature went into the Stratus report, which included engineering studies of the buildings, environmental studies of the property and research for individual proposals, Frazier said.
   “You really have to do all these assessments in order to get back to the bigger picture,” Frazier said. “People need a little bit more information and locations need to be determined pretty closely in order to be able to give them an idea of what might fit and they’re going to get down there. There are a zillion questions people ask.”
   Stratus engineers have concentrated on two areas on the property: the barking and chipping complex, which is near the water; and the board mill building, which is situated in a more central location near the future Laurel Street extension. Graham said these buildings have “good bones,” meaning they look solid and have potential for renovation. 

Malcolm Fleming, chief administrative officer for the city of Bellingham, said building a bridge to connect the intersection at N. State and Laurel streets with Cornwall Avenue (see dashed line) is a project the city hopes to have completed by 2009.

Getting from here to there
   Transportation between the main campus and the extended waterfront campus is a vital issue, Graham said. Extending Laurel Street to intersect Cornwall Avenue is one of the most likely ways the university will connect to the waterfront, Graham said.
   “Agreements are already in place with the WTA for bus service around the campus,” Graham said. “So, if you can simply have a road that connects into that transportation system, you can throw as many buses on there as you need to serve the new demand. So, the Laurel Street extension is the key linkage between Western and the waterfront, and that has been recognized by the City of Bellingham as their key responsibility that they need to make happen.”
   Malcolm Fleming, chief administrative officer for the city, said extending Laurel Street and building a bridge to connect the intersection at N. State Street and Laurel with Cornwall, is a project the city plans on doing no matter what.
   “We want to make sure there is a good connection between the campus and anything they facilitate on the waterfront,” Fleming said. “The Laurel Street Bridge is a major facility that we are planning on regardless of what happens, because we do anticipate WWU moving down there.”
   Fleming said since WWU hopes to move some operations down to the waterfront as early as 2009, the city is going to start doing design work late this year or early 2007.
   “We’re trying to be ready by 2009,” Fleming said. “That’s an ambitious timeline, because a major bridge project like that can take many years, so we’re starting work on it right now, but I don’t anticipate seeing actual development activity down there for a couple of years.”

   Perhaps the one obstacle that will eventually require the most detailed planning, but has received slightly less attention in this early design phase, is funding. WWU has not identified specific sources of funding yet, but numerous possible options exist, said Don Kleinknecht, Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and a member of the waterfront committee.
   Some likely sources of funding will come from state and governmental grants, partnerships with federal or state level organizations, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, and self-sustaining programs, such as fees or courses, Kleinknecht said.
   “We have ideas coming out our ears,” Kleinknecht said. “One of these days we need to get down to the nitty gritty of how we’re going to do it.”
   Stratus has been helping WWU with venture-capital ideas other than the traditional state or federal grants, Frazier said. Some of the proposals WWU’s academic departments have put forth also lend themselves well to private and public investors, he said.
   Frazier said by December, when Stratus hopes to have the report in draft form, funding options will become more of a pressing issue, because the assessments of the big picture, as well as smaller projects, will be clearer.

Who gets the new digs?
   Stratus is also working with WWU to determine what academic departments and university projects would benefit the most by moving to the waterfront’s space.
   Kleinknecht said the committee has considered about 25 proposals, including ones that would be feasible in the short term and others that would only be possible after the initial development occurs on the waterfront.
   A conference center, border research institute, faculty and senior housing and an arts and performance center are all ideas the committee has considered, Kleinknecht said.
   The waterfront committee decided to allocate money for three proposals this summer involving Huxley College of the Environment, the College of Sciences and Technology and Woodring College of Education. The money primarily went toward researching similar facilities, institutions and schools, Kleinknecht said.
   About $25,000 went toward Huxley’s research and studies about moving the entire college to the waterfront, Graham said. This move would open up opportunities for the college to develop more sustainable facilities and expand its programs, he said.
   “We are really getting into what Huxley will be like in 50 years,” Graham said. “We don’t just want to move what’s on campus to the waterfront, because that was designed for the 20th century. We are not only looking internally at Huxley, we are also benchmarking against other peer facilities around the country.”
   Huxley is aiming to use facilities that are Platinum LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environment Design). Graham said they have examined how the University of California at Santa Barbara recently built a new school of environmental science and management that was Platinum LEED-certified.
   “LEED is a program that in some ways is a checklist, to make sure whatever building you build or renovate is very, very sustainable,” Graham said.
   Other colleges Stratus consultants and Huxley faculty have researched include Oberlin College in Ohio and University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
   “We look at what others have done with similar obstacles and challenges,” Graham said. “Learn lessons if we can, and see if there are things worth borrowing and adopting. We can learn as much from what they did wrong as what they did right.”
   The College of Sciences and Technology received about $21,000 to research its Consortium for Technological Innovation and Development. This could be an opportunity for students in fields such as chemistry, engineering and technology to partner with local businesses for research and internships, said Arlan Norman, Dean of College of Sciences and Technology.
   Norman and other faculty and staff of the College of Sciences and Technology have been working with TAG (the Technology Alliance Group) to develop ideas of what type of facilities the consortium should offer.
   TAG is a local organization of about 80 to 100 members, including individuals and businesses. Norman said the group serves primarily as a networking opportunity, and offers seminars and discussions about technological developments.
   “They (TAG) have a lot of tentacles out into the community because of who they are,” Norman said. “They are very valuable to us for what this consortium should look like. We can’t decide what we need by sitting up here in a vacuum thinking about it. We have to talk to people in the community to see what we need and what it should look like. Working with them is where we get that information.”
   Associate Dean of Woodring College Michael Henniger said Woodring hopes to move some certificate programs to the waterfront and focus more on developing teaching skills, such as adapting to new curriculums, for teachers already in their careers. Woodring received about $3,500 for its summer research.
   “One of the things we might build on is to do more professional development activity that doesn’t lead to a degree,” Henniger said. “Schools are always asking the university to help to train and prepare teachers for a new curriculum-development idea, or a new approach to teaching and learning, and we haven’t engaged in those kind of activities much in the past few years because it’s so difficult for teachers to connect to us.”
   Henniger said teachers often teach for several years before studying in certain programs, such as the National Board Certification and Professional Certification. Teachers who are already involved in the community would be able to more easily access the waterfront facilities than the main campus, he said.

Overcoming the challenges
   Frazier said the biggest challenge to this redevelopment is communication, both within WWU and with outside state, federal and private organizations.
   “We’re making sure we’re talking all the time with the port or the city or whoever would be a partner with the university as we’re trying to move forward,” Frazier said. “In many respects you’re kind of building a new city from the ground up, and because there are so many parties involved in this, I think if we don’t communicate with each other as effectively as possible, it kind of messes everyone else up. It creates some problems for partners if they don’t know what we’re doing.”
   Stratus’ report will help clarify where different parties stand in the development, and provide the groundwork to move into the next phase, Graham said.
   “We want to make sure we’re bringing everything along on a common level,” Graham said. “Conversely, we’re digging far enough and wide and deep to make sure we have a pretty good handle of where it is we want to go — bringing our partners at the port and the city, as well as the community, together. We need to make sure we’re not doing it independently of them as more of this becomes crystallized.”

Western Washington University’s plans for the waterfront will likely entail between 10 and 20 acres of use, and could include part or all of three colleges moving down to the water.


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