The preliminary site plan in a Dec. 8 presentation by the developer to the port commission shows the planned layout of the buildings. The first three to be built will be the waterfront condos, at the top of the image.

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Stand on the roadway that crosses over the railroad tracks along the Bellingham waterfront and cast your eyes to the bay: to the right, the Granary Building, Waypoint Park and the Acid Ball; below you, cyclists on the pump track; in the distance the rusted-silver pulp digester tanks, the golden terra cotta pulp storage tanks and the red brick Board Mill Building. 

Changes in that vista are underway.

After more than a decade of discussion, planning and cleanup of an industrial waste site, the city’s partnership with the port and a contract with a Dublin-based company are putting the waterfront’s future on the ground. First will come high-end waterfront condos, then multi-generation housing, hotel, restaurants, and recreation and office facilities.

Meet your future, City of Subdued Excitement

The Georgia Pacific (GP) pulp and tissue mill “dominated the downtown Bellingham waterfront from the 1960s to 2007,” notes the Port of Bellingham website. After GP shuttered its operations and eliminated 420 jobs, the Port of Bellingham acquired its property — and its environmental liabilities — for $1.

What followed were years of planning in partnership with the City of Bellingham, clean up of toxic sites and the Port’s contract with Harcourt Development to build an urban village.

Next week a new building will start to go up on Bellingham’s waterfront for the first time in decades.  

Patricia Decker was planning director for the City in 1991 when work began on Visions for Bellingham, a community-involved planning process. One thing that emerged was that people wanted to be oriented around the bay, but there was so much industry there that neighborhoods had been designed to look away from it, she said. 

When GP left, “people got lots more interested in being more oriented towards the water and getting more access,” said Decker, who said she spent most of her career as planning director reorienting Bellingham towards the bay. When she retired in 2007, GP was closing, and the opportunity to really take on a new area for development was beginning. 

“I think everybody underestimated the amount of time it would take to get our hands and heads and resources wrapped around what was involved,” Decker said.

The contamination of the 237-acre site was extensive due to the toxic chemicals associated with making paper products. The damage from GP’s time on the waterfront was significant, according to David Roberts, owner of Kulshan Services, an environmental consulting firm and former Washington Department of Natural Resources manager. The soil near shore on Bellingham Bay has layers of toxic sediment built up in it from the heavy industrial years. “The biggest polluters are probably the pulp mills,” said Roberts. “Bellingham Bay used to just be covered with a white foam in the old days, because they directly discharged [waste].” 

The Whatcom Waterway was cleaned up in 2016 at a cost of $35 million. In 2016 the new public-access areas and the first new building site were cleaned up for $2 million. As cleanup proceeded, the city installed a public beach at Waypoint Park and a new road connecting downtown Bellingham to the Bay. 

First up: high-end waterfront-view condos

According to Port Commissioner Michael Shepard, construction will begin “within the next week” when pilings for three new buildings will be driven. These will be high-end, waterfront-view condos, one of which has already been fully leased, according to a Dec. 8 presentation to the port commission by Des Dennehy, chief operating officer for Harcourt. 

These first three buildings are the start of a new residential area in Bellingham, which also includes multifamily apartments, a senior-living/assisted-living/memory-care facility and an “early-living” building (intended for younger families), as well as a hotel, restaurants, a gym and office spaces. The condos will be built first. In the long term, the city would like to see this area turn into an urban village, like Fairhaven and the Fountain District, with everything from hotels to climbing gyms and performing spaces. 

Roberts has concerns about how the new buildings will be prepared for climate-change-related sea level rise. With underground garages and being right at the water’s edge, new buildings and infrastructure need to be prepared for flooding. With the right conditions of a king tide and windstorm in a low-pressure system, high water could become a problem over time. 

Harcourt is required to provide a percentage of low-income housing but didn’t in its first phase of condos. According to Dennehy, they have contracted with another company to plan for this in 2021.

Bellingham is in the midst of a housing crisis, and Shepard emphasized during the Dec. 8 presentation that low-income housing is one of the chief concerns of the community. Meeting the need for low-income housing on the waterfront site was again discussed at the Jan. 5 port commission meeting during the presentation of the Millworks project on adjacent port property. 

What comes next?

In 2013, the City of Bellingham and the Port of Bellingham signed an interlocal agreement which, according to Tara Sundin, the city’s community and economic development manager, “lays out about $100 million worth of investments that the City is going to make over the 20-year horizon.” Development is broken into several phases that require the port and the city to complete various tasks before the next phase begins. 

Commissioner Shepard said that until the development is built out, the port has created interim uses for the waterfront district’s open space like the pump track and other public access amenities. These amenities will change eventually, and are providing some utilization of the space until construction begins. 

Heritage Trial Concept Plan for the Waterfront District was developed and presented to the city and the port in 2018. The document describes an interpretive walk concept telling the site’s story using historic structures and industrial artifacts, and guiding public access in development.

As part of the final stages of the interlocal agreement, a new park will be built on the Cornwall Landfill in part to contain its toxicity and to provide more waterfront access. According to Sundin, this new park will be around three times the size of Boulevard Park, currently Bellingham’s largest waterfront park. 

According to Roberts, about 30% of the landfill, sitting south of the development site and now covered with white tarp, has washed into the bay. While environmental cleanup of the sites is underway, there will always need to be additional work done to minimize liability, he said. 

The park won’t be built, according to Sundin, until Harcourt reaches a development threshold of 500,000 square feet of floor space — about nine football fields worth of apartments, shops, ballrooms and stages. 

Fast-paced future … after years of waiting

After a decade and a half of lost jobs, environmental cleanup and development planning, the expectation has risen that the coming years will likely be some of the fastest paced. As Shepard puts it, this “will be the first new construction on the waterfront district in anyone’s lifetime of new buildings.”

At his Dec. 8 presentation, Harcourt’s Dennehy announced that Körber Digital, an international tech company specializing in digital, pharmaceutical, supply chain, tissue and tobacco technologies, has leased much of the Granary Building and will bring around 120 jobs to the waterfront.

“Economic development [is] a very complicated, nuanced word,” said Guy Occhiogrosso, president and CEO of the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce. To him, it means “more, better jobs.” He believes that Körber and the waterfront development will bring that to Bellingham. Like many others, however, he is frustrated with how long it has taken to bring those jobs to the waterfront.

According to Shepard, the competing visions for the waterfront district and the robust process to make sure that the community is heard are part of why development has taken so long. He pointed out two opposing viewpoints: one is where development happens quickly for the sake of economic development; the other is slowly for the sake of useful, long-term development. “So we ended up doing something squarely in the middle. That’s what government ends up doing most of the time,” said Shepard. 

“Am I frustrated that things haven’t happened soon enough?” he asked. “Of course. Are we trying to make every effort we can to move things along in a way that is really careful and ensures that the public is getting what they want and need? Yeah, we’re also trying to do that.” 

Sundin also recognized people’s frustration with how long this project has been in development. “It took a really long time to get agreement and adopt the plan,” she said. “I think most of the abutting property owners, business owners are excited for redevelopment so long as it doesn’t take from the health of downtown … I think, if anything, they’re just wanting it to speed up.”

See also “Downtown Bellingham waterfront site sprouts new signs of life,Salish Current, Feb. 26, 2020.