Bellingham Bay faces redevelopment after more than a decade of discussion
Written by Hallie Fuchs // Photos by Kyra Taubel-Bruce
What makes the town of Bellingham, Washington, so special? Is it the countless breweries or the quirky shops aptly named Third Planet or The Lucky Monkey? Is it walking down Kentucky Street and seeing Velveeta Jones, the brightly colored chicken guarding the equally bright Homeskillet? As the City of Subdued Excitement, Bellingham evokes a small-town feel, where everyone says hello when walking along the Interurban Trail and the server at your favorite brunch spot probably knows your face and that yes, you would like a mimosa.
However, the City of Subdued Excitement is expanding as far as the eye can see. In 2005, the City of Bellingham and the Port of Bellingham decided to create a Waterfront District by redeveloping the former Georgia-Pacific Pulp Mill & Tissue Processing Site (GP). The abandoned buildings on the outskirts of downtown can be seen best from areas like Boundary Bay, The Upfront Theatre or Jalapeños on West Holly Street. One of the more famous buildings, the granary with its ivy heart, will finish being remodeled along with nearby roads by 2018.
The Waterfront Redevelopment Project (WRP)
The WRP plans to redevelop 237 acres of property in the cultural and downtown district of Bellingham. Recently, the Central Business District Neighborhood Plan said much of the downtown area had “turned its back” to Bellingham’s waterfront.
The WRP is produced by the Port of Bellingham, that owns all 237 acres where redevelopment will take place. Supporting organizations include the City of Bellingham, which provides building development and permits; Western Washington University, that wants to invest in a future for Western that coincides with Bellingham’s growth; and the Whatcom Working Waterfront Coalition, that fights to keep the fishing community’s rights and lifestyle alive and well.
According to the master plan of the WRP, there are six sections that make up the WRP: Marine Trade, Aerated Stabilization Basin/Marina, Downtown Waterfront, Log Pond, Bellingham Shipping Terminal and Cornwall Beach. Twenty-nine acres of land will be dedicated to the maritime industry, 33 acres to parks, 60 to streets and utilities and 111 acres for mixed-use (meaning multipurpose buildings, such as restaurants, shops, hotels and conference centers).
Waterfront District Environmental Cleanup
Even though these plans began over a decade ago, they are on schedule with the environmental cleanup that started this year. Out of the six contaminated sites dispersed throughout the various sections of the WRP, the Whatcom Waterway cleanup is the biggest project, at over 200 acres and $35 million worth of cleanup.
Phase 1 was recently completed in summer of 2016, making it one of the biggest cleanup projects in state history.
“It was a different time. We did not have the regulatory framework in place to prevent industrial pollution on our waterfront or an overall awareness about the value of a clean waterfront,” says Mike Hogan, public affairs administrator for the Port of Bellingham.
This cleanup will not only help the bay’s current environmental crisis and reduce future pollution, but it will allow the Waterfront District to develop with the city’s growing population.
Kurt Nabbefeld, development services manager for the City of Bellingham, works in the Planning and Community Development Department and oversees land use, permitting and building processes.
“Bellingham is going to grow and we want to manage that in a sustainable way that allows us to take advantage of what’s to offer but also maintains what makes Bellingham so special,” Nabbefeld says.
The Growth Management Act requires Bellingham to plan accordingly for growth of the city, which includes having land and jobs to accommodate. Nabbefeld believes the project will connect downtown, old town and the waterfront and help create more industrial and living-wage jobs.
Itek Energy will be moving downtown and All American Marine, a local boat builder, will be hiring once their 57,000 square foot facility is completed by the end of 2016.
Glass Beach and the neighboring site of a former municipal landfill will undergo cleanup and renovation to create Cornwall Beach Park, which is projected to be Bellingham’s largest waterfront park.
In the summer of 2016, construction began on the Granary Building as part of Bellingham’s waterfront renovation project. Built in 1928, the Granary functioned as a cooperative market for farmers until it was purchased by Georgia- Pacific in 1970.
The Granary Building is the first waterfront building to undergo renovation and restoration to house restaurants, commercial and office space.
Is the sense of community what makes Bellingham so special? What about for Western? Students make up nearly 20 percent of the total population of the city. The rich and vibrant scene that permeates through every nook and cranny of Bellingham screams young, hip culture. Thanks to the countless students who have flooded this sleepy town since Western opened in 1899, Bellingham is like a living, breathing Birkenstock. Western enhances the atmosphere of the city and is undoubtedly one of the most important communities in the area.
Western’s approach toward the upcoming project involved exchanging property and creating a nonprofit corporation called Western Crossing Development, formerly known as Viking Development. Six acres have been set aside specifically for the school. According to development plans, the three-phase process includes the creation of a Center for Community Engagement and Innovation (CCEI), a multi-use conference center for Western and Bellingham.
Looking at the plans regarding Western Crossing, brightly colored sketches show sunny days with people walking by the water. Everything looks new and unfamiliar compared to the beauty and vastness of the bay and barren buildings that are most certainly eyesores.
Steve Swan, vice president of university relations and community development, is excited for the changes the redevelopment will bring. Even though this is his last year at Western, he has been working on the project since its early days on a commission board.
“It is a rare opportunity to develop on a waterfront. I think that it could be a destination point for people from our county, region and state because it’s such a special location. Look one direction and see the San Juans and the other, Mt. Baker,” Swan says. “We always try to seek out the student voice, [they] are one of numerous groups who need to benefit from it.”
While the public might be most intrigued about the new shops, parks and restaurants in the Downtown Waterfront and Cornwall Beach area, the marine working waterfront sections are also important to the project, with seven percent or 6,000 jobs supported by the maritime workforce, says Jim Kyle, president of the Working Waterfront Coalition of Whatcom County.
Looking at the Working Waterfront Coalition’s website, their front page includes information such as “shipyards giving way to condominiums and ship chandleries replaced by boutiques.” These threats to the maritime community lifestyle are those most desired by the public and tourists.
Kyle sits at the Weblocker Restaurant, a home port for the maritime community. Older men sit in groups wearing heavy outer coats and knit hats, an embodiment of the sea and hard labor. Among the maritime community, there were reservations about the project.
“The danger is that since pressure leads the port and city to favor mixed-use development, they could take some of that portion and convert it to mixed use,” Kyle says.
After the last Port meeting, the maritime community came away with a more positive outlook on the WRP. Harcourt Development, a Dublin-based construction company, introduced the project timeline for the next several years, putting community members at ease, Kyle says.
Working on the mixed-use area, Harcourt plans on having the first building, park and road scheduled to open in 2017, and “new” Bellingham will emerge in the not-so-distant future.
Imagine, several years from now, even several decades, when young and old will be flooding the streets of the Waterfront District. A sea of green and blue, the Bellingham flag, as far as the eye can see will be held up high and proud. The sun will be right above the boat-filled bay on a bright and busy Saturday; families go for a walk at the new Cornwall Beach Park, others will be waiting outside one of the many new brunch spots where yes, they will want mimosas.
The uniqueness of Bellingham, the pride, care and a pinch or five of quirk, makes this waterfront redevelopment not only an exciting adventure, but one that should be embraced with open arms.