Downtown Bellingham waterfront site sprouts new signs of life

A cyclist rides the bike park course at the former G-P industrial site.
A cyclist enjoys a sunset ride along the bike park course at the former Georgia-Pacific plant on Bellingham’s waterfront on a recent February afternoon. The course, adjacent Waypoint Park and nearby Granary Building are the first signs of new post-industrial life on the downtown Bellingham site. (Melissa Marteny photo ©️2020)

By John Stark

— After almost 20 years of frustration and stagnation, the first tender shoots of redevelopment have appeared amid the post-industrial desolation that Georgia-Pacific Corp. left behind on Bellingham’s downtown waterfront.

The once-decrepit Granary Building at the foot of Central Avenue has been remodeled and its first tenants have moved in. Nearby Waypoint Park and its bike track are attracting families to an area where barges piled with wood chips were unloaded for transformation into toilet paper in G-P’s boilers and tissue mill. A new city street, Granary Avenue, extends southwest to a rebuilt Laurel Street that links up with Cornwall Avenue at the spot where more than 1,000 people once entered the plant to pull their shift.

The new development is a small slice of the G-P property that once formed the city’s economic backbone, and a foretaste of what is expected in the years ahead.

Please, no ‘Bellevue’

The Port of Bellingham assumed ownership of G-P’s 137 acres in 2005, about four years after the shutdown of the pulp mill that provided the bulk of G-P jobs. 

In the midst of a nationwide real estate boom, many people hoped — or feared — that high-rises, shops, technology companies and public parks would burst into existence on the waterfront. 

“The biggest fear I heard was, we don’t want Bellevue to pop up,” Port of Bellingham Executive Director Rob Fix said. 

In retrospect, there was never much danger of that. Even without the real estate bust that vaporized the flow of investment dollars, the process of turning conflicting dreams and visions into reality could never have been quick or simple.

An extensive and sometimes bitter public planning process took years, as port and city leaders struggled to agree on how streets and buildings should be configured. The planning and execution of the cleanup of industrial toxins also proved contentious.

Shortage of proposals

When the time appeared ripe to solicit developers to turn plans into buildings, the results did not live up to expectations.

By the time the port was ready to seek proposals from developers in late 2013, the worst effects of the real estate investment bust had passed. But the level of interest from firms with the money and experience to do the job remained less than robust when the port sent out its invitation to developers.

“There was hardly any response to it,” said Tara Sundin, Bellingham’s community and economic development manager.

Dublin-based Harcourt Developments, developer of the Titanic Quarter in Belfast, Northern Ireland, appeared to submit the strongest proposal, Fix said, but he acknowledged that he was disappointed in the overall lack of interest in Bellingham’s big plans. Harcourt had little competition.

“We thought we were going to get developers coming in here with capital saying, ‘We’re going to build this,’” Fix said. “Harcourt was the only one who came in here with capital and expertise.”

A panel consisting of representatives from the city, Whatcom County and the port reviewed the proposals and unanimously agreed on Harcourt in February 2014. Another year and more would pass before May 2015 when the port and Harcourt agreed to terms on a master development agreement giving Harcourt exclusive rights to develop about 20 acres of the port’s holdings, subject to conditions and deadlines.

Sundin, who served on the review panel with former Mayor Kelli Linville, agreed that Harcourt had the best available qualifications at the time. But she added that if the port were in a position to solicit proposals from other developers today, there might be more takers.

Fix agreed. With the benefit of hindsight, he said it might have been better to wait for further improvement of economic conditions, and to put in streets and city utilities first, as an incentive to private investment. 

Construction this year?

Now, Harcourt appears ready to give its Bellingham operation a higher priority. For the first time, the company has a full-time employee stationed here to oversee operations. Desmond Dennehy, 46, said Harcourt recruited him from his former position in real estate management for Bank of Montreal in Ireland to take the Bellingham post. Dennehy added that he had business dealings with Harcourt going back about 20 years.

Dennehy expects construction to begin later this year on the first new buildings to rise on the old industrial site: a $32 million project just south of Waypoint Park that will include 92 condos in three buildings, with underground parking, first-floor shops and offices, and public open space.

Completion is expected to take 18 months to two years, Dennehy said. 

Harcourt purchased the 1.7-acre site for that project in April 2018 for $1.6 million.

Dennehy projects enthusiasm for the economic potential of Bellingham’s waterfront. He said there are few such sites available anywhere in the world, with a large amount of open acreage in a shoreside location adjacent to a downtown, but available to potential new businesses without the higher real estate costs and traffic congestion of Vancouver or Seattle. At the same time, those two big cities are close enough to be convenient, he added.

Dennehy praised the collaborative work that produced what he sees as a waterfront master plan that provides a solid template for both Harcourt and other firms considering new locations.

“All the lines on the football field are down,” Dennehy said. “Now we have to play on the football field … Harcourt wouldn’t have allocated me to this project if they didn’t have the drive now to move forward.”

A structure used in pulp-making is now artwork.
Once used as a pressure relief valve as wood chips were transformed into pulp, the “acid ball” on the former G-P site has found new life as a glowing work of art. (Melissa Marteny photo ©️2020)

Filling up the all the empty waterfront real estate will likely take decades nonetheless. Fix said the Bellingham economy typically absorbs about 100,000 square feet of new building space in a year, which is not a staggering amount. The Granary alone is about 57,000 square feet, and the waterfront has a potential 6 million square feet of space for buildings. 

The calculus could change, perhaps, if the site proves attractive enough to lure new businesses and employment, as Dennehy believes it will.

The development of the port’s Bellwether Peninsula to the north provides some perspective on the pace of growth here, Fix said. The peninsula, created with dredged material from the expansion of Squalicum Harbor, was ready for development in the early 1980s, but the Hotel Bellwether and adjacent buildings did not take shape until the early 2000s, and the last building site on the 48-acre property is only now being filled.

Cleanup and sea-level challenges

Besides the real estate that the port acquired from G-P for redevelopment, there are also two city-owned properties to the southwest: an old city dump and the contaminated former site of a wood treatment plant. Costly and time-consuming cleanup is still ahead before those sites can become the park that city planners envision.

Sundin said the cleanup work will likely take two years to complete, with a combined cost of about $27 million. State environmental cleanup funds are expected to pay about half that, with the rest to be paid by the city.

Aside from the cleanup costs, the city also faces a sizeable expense to convert the site to a new park. Like the rest of the waterfront redevelopment, the park must be built at an elevation high enough to accommodate sea level rise in the years ahead.

“This is a park that’s three times the size of Boulevard Park,” Mayor Seth Fleetwood said.

The city will build the park in stages to spread out the cost, with the first phase perhaps ready for the public in 2023 or 2024, Fleetwood said.

Port Commission President Michael Shepard said port commissioners share some of the public frustration at the pace of Harcourt’s progress up to this point. But the company is not solely to blame for delays, Shepard said.

“Harcourt gets a lot of criticism in our community,” Shepard said “Some of it is earned, some of it is not.”

Dennehy’s arrival is a welcome development, Shepard added.

“One of the things that has always been missing is a full-time employee,” Shepard said, adding that the eight-hour time difference between Bellingham and Harcourt’s Dublin headquarters had been a headache at times.

Once the new residential building complex project is up and running, Shepard said he expects commissioners to be more receptive to an earlier Harcourt plan for a hotel and conference center incorporating G-P’s old red brick board mill building on Laurel Street. Harcourt appeared ready to move ahead with that project in mid-2016, but port commissioners voted 2-1 to postpone the plan.

Shepard, who was not on the commission at that time, said he thinks the hotel plan is attractive. He wants to see progress on the residential complex as evidence of Harcourt’s capabilities, before green-lighting another big project.

Bikes, beer and public access

Shepard said the improvements already in place in and around the Granary represent real progress.

“It’s been over a generation since people had access to that part of Bellingham’s waterfront,” Shepard said.

Port staffers say they hope to bring many more people down to the new waterfront this summer.

At a recent port commission meeting, port environmental programs director Brian Gouran said plans include the creation of a food truck area that will also offer spots for small container-style seasonal food vending. 

Waypoint Park will be the centerpoint June 5-7 of a planned beer, bike and music festival dubbed Northwest Tune-Up, Gouran said, with some bike events slated in mountain bike meccas outside the city. The port expects to put in a 66,500-square-foot lawn to accommodate the festival, as well as a temporary restroom installation that will be heated and connected to city water and sewer on site: in other words, not a cluster of porta-potties.

Mayor Fleetwood acknowledged that the pace of waterfront revival has not lived up to anyone’s expectations, but maintained the revival is under way. 

“There’s every reason to believe this is going to be the place we love and revere,” Fleetwood said. “It’s just a question of at what pace.”

John Stark writes about government and environmental issues in Whatcom County and the Pacific Northwest. Among other assignments, he covered the shutdown of Georgia-Pacific, the Port of Bellingham, and community waterfront redevelopment for the Bellingham Herald.

Melissa Marteny is a career photojournalist. Her experience in sports, news and feature photography was received at the Associated Press, Seattle Post-IntelligencerBremerton SunTacoma News TribuneBellingham Herald and other publications. She has photographed Mount Saint Helens eruptions, two presidents and the Queen of England, and traveled to Afghanistan during the Soviet Afghan war where she and her camera were at the front with the mujahedin.