Expectations are high, questions remain as waterfront neighborhood takes shape - Salish Current
April 28, 2023
Expectations are high, questions remain as waterfront neighborhood takes shape
Kai Uyehara

Cyclists jump the rolling pump-track mounds on the developing waterfront; part of the activity and energy now-public spaces have accommodated. A skate park and a container village featuring a beer garden, bike rental and an ice cream shop are also part of the action. (Kai Uyehara / Salish Current photo © 2023)

April 28, 2023
Expectations are high, questions remain as waterfront neighborhood takes shape
Kai Uyehara

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The revitalization of Bellingham’s once-industrial waterfront is on the horizon as the Millworks and BoardMill projects progress, bringing residences — including affordable housing, hotels, food hubs and childcare to now-vacant lots.

In early planning, the City of Bellingham and its public envisioned an urban village area, public spaces, new jobs and low-income housing without transformation into a high-rise city center.

So how closely do planned constructions fit the vision?

The Millworks project, led by the Whatcom Community Foundation in partnership with Mercy Housing Northwest, began construction of affordable housing and a 100-child YMCA early learning center for its first phase in late 2022. With Port of Bellingham Commission authorization on April 11, Millworks LLC will create another 80 affordable housing units, a food campus for local produce and a rooftop event space. 

The BoardMill project received an option to purchase property from the Port commission in the same meeting. The three-phase project will include a four-story boutique hotel with a conference space and food hub by repurposing the BoardMill building, a seven-story residential building and a park/parking building with residential units.

With the projects aiming for completion by 2027 and 2028 respectively, joining the reinvented Granary building and the incoming Harcourt condominiums, a vision of the waterfront’s future is coming together. Local housing shortages, food insecurity and community expectations for the city’s new space have influenced the features of these mixed-use projects, tasking the City, Port and developers with addressing gaps and expanding Bellingham’s reach. 

Channeling community visions

As the Georgia-Pacific pulp and tissue mill packed up from the waterfront, the Port and City created the citizen-led Waterfront Futures Group in 2003 to communicate the community’s vision for the waterfront. 

In 2022, the Port sold property to Mercy Housing Northwest to develop Phase I of the Millworks project: 84 units of affordable housing along with a YMCA of Whatcom County early childhood education center. The Whatcom Community Foundation is spearheading Phase II of the Millworks project: another 80+ units of affordable housing, a two-story local food production campus, rooftop event space and a rooftop terrace. (Port of Bellingham rendering)

“There were at least 20 different plans that came forward,” said John Blethen, a member of the group. The overall vision “was primarily to create another neighborhood like the Fountain or Fairhaven neighborhoods with its own intact identity, rather than moving the downtown to the waterfront. There’d be a residential mixture and some neighborhood and recreational facilities. The one biggest consistency is that people wanted to be able to touch the water.”

The group also aspired to preserve elements of the waterfront’s industrial past, like the Granary and four digester tanks. They wanted to cap new building heights and create a corridor to maintain views of the bay, and set buildings back from the water for public access, Blethen said.

The Port received a range of  community ideas, from creating one giant park to a Bellevue-esque office center, said executive director Rob Fix. “I think the Port, the City and the stakeholder groups that worked on this found a great compromise.”

The suggestions, along with governmental requirements, were merged into a master plan, said Port spokesman Mike Hogan. It outlines specifics on square footage for retail development, number of residences, acres of parkland and building heights, among others. 

Community input influenced both the Millworks and BoardMill projects, especially regarding public access and housing.

“In developing the project, we tried to go back to all of the community planning and visioning documents that have been done over the years,” Whatcom Community Foundation CEO Mauri Ingram said of Millworks, referencing the Waterfront Futures Group, the community health improvement plan and the community economic development strategy document.

‘Nailing’ public access

The primary ask from the community has been open public spaces, Fix said, and he believes the Port has been “nailing it.”

“We’re trying to be very careful not to have it just be a high-income-earner space, so we’re really trying to be diligent so the whole community can use the space,” said BoardMill developer Sean Hegstad. At the BoardMill, the public can access a marketplace and restaurants at the hotel. A large public stair will lead to the roof deck space at the park building and then down to a park strip along the water that is still being planned. 

The phase two Millworks building will also feature a public staircase with rooftop access and event space, Ingram said. “The biggest thing that we heard from people is they want some places where they can gather or experience art that doesn’t necessarily require that people spend money.”

“Waypoint Park is the only spot right now where you can get down and touch the water,” at the GP site, Hogan said, but “there’s some big parks coming. Salish Landing park is going to be Bellingham’s largest waterfront park and that’s scheduled to go in the next year or two and then Waypoint Park phase two as soon as the waterfront condominiums get built.”

‘Every unit we can get’

Bellingham’s population is growing and wages aren’t keeping pace with increasing housing prices, per City of Bellingham reports, and Bellingham’s vacancy rate is 2% — a healthy rate is 3% or more. In such a stressed housing landscape, the developing waterfront will have a part to play in easing pressures. 

“We need a lot more housing, period,” Ingram said. “We need every unit we can get.”

Millworks’ phase one will have 83 permanently affordable units with another 80-plus units in phase two, mixed between rental and ownership, Ingram said. 

Plans for the 5.3-acre Boardmill Block include transformation of the historic Boardmill Building into a hotel and banquet hall, a seven-story residential project with approximately 160 residential units and commercial space, and a parking structure with additional commercial space and approximately 80 residential units, with publicly accessible park space on the top floor. (Port of Bellingham rendering)

The BoardMill will have 160 residential units in its seven-story building, and 79 in its park building, 10% of which will be permanently affordable, Hegstad said. 

With the scheduled developments and others yet to come, the waterfront will be able to absorb much of Whatcom County’s projected population growth, Hogan said. 

But housing activists like city council member Kristina Michele Martens are skeptical of new low-income housing, based on the City’s track record. 

“The City keeps talking about how much they’re doing to end the crisis of people experiencing homelessness, patting themselves on the back for all of this construction,” Martens said. “We need to do some serious investigation into the integrity of the construction of these low-income housing units and then the longevity and stability of it actually being low-income.”

“I want accurate results,” she said. “While we are building what I imagine will be beautiful housing for the waterfront, I’m very worried about the integrity of the construction and the positive PR of low-income housing units. I’m very worried about what the condition of those units would be.”

New jobs, too

On top of demand for affordable housing, the community wanted to see new jobs created.

Over the years, a Millworks consultant has advised Ingram there would be more than 150 jobs created by the project, including at the food campus, operating the facility, retail stores and a possible statewide center to promote and facilitate employee ownership, Ingram said. 

BoardMill will create jobs at its boutique hotel, banquet hall, restaurants and marketplace that will promote business ownership, Hegstad said. 

“Building these projects takes years and they’re $20, $30, $40 million projects and investments, so that hires a lot of consultants, architects, engineers and construction jobs,” Hogan said. 

The waterfront itself creates diverse employment opportunities with marine trades, the Bellingham Shipping Terminal and Salish Landing Park, said Brian Gouran, Port director of environmental and planning services. 

There will be more office spaces developed over time, and adding residences and low-income units will help employers across Whatcom who have trouble recruiting enough employees because of lacking affordable housing, Fix said. The hotel and conference center will also bring more business. 

Local ag, local food

The Millworks project will feature a food campus in its second phase, stepping into the centrally located waterfront as a hub for local countywide produce. 

“Agriculture is one big piece of the heart of Whatcom County … in terms of land use, production, employers, culture,” said Cloud Mountain Farm Center director Elizabeth Hayes. Having a crossover between production agriculture and farmers in the county and interacting with a multi-use working waterfront where people live, are employed and are visiting will be important way “to highlight the sort of the things that make Whatcom County tick.”

Harcourt Bellingham is building three residential waterfront buildings along Granary Avenue, with street-level commercial and restaurant space. (Port of Bellingham rendering)

Hayes sees Millworks’ food campus as more exposure for city-dwellers to crops from local farm businesses. 

“It’s been a long and drawn out process, but I hope they’re doing their due diligence to make sure that we end up with a development that is meaningful to the food system as a whole, scaled appropriately from the beginning,” Hayes said. “How many people do you want to serve and who do you want to bring in now, but what’s the plan for growth five, 10 years down the road? We have a really strong, fairly collaborative and diverse food system here and with a lot of things in the food system, sometimes I fear going too small first.”

Hayes spoke with a Millworks consultant last month and is encouraged by the development team’s investigation into current food infrastructure, resources and organizations. 

Economic opportunity, efficient warehouse and aggregation space and consistent exposure to new customers are very meaningful for local producers, Hayes said. She hopes the food campus will be a place where folks who are interested in local produce and food producers can interact under one roof. 

Ingram said there are no formalized agreements with food businesses and nonprofits yet.

Still time for ideas

Though waterfront developments have taken form with community, City and Port influence, not all of the community has been engaged throughout the process. 

After the Waterfront Futures Group said their piece, there was an implementation group made up of Port and City members of which Blethen was the only member of the previous community group.

“There was significant community involvement initially,” Blethen said, but “there was a disconnect between what previous groups had planned and what new groups proposed and the community at some point kind of lost interest in the process because it took so long.”

Of those who were paying attention to waterfront development in the first place, Martens said, many were of more affluent backgrounds. 

“The vision of what the waterfront will look like has really been driven by people who can afford to live there,” Martens said. “They have the time and the bandwidth to give their thoughts, to pay attention to the meetings, to show up every time it’s asked. I am on the ground with the renters, millennials, students … the people that make up the majority of this community. Those people don’t really care about what’s happening on the waterfront because they know it’s not for them.”

More opportunities for community engagement are coming.

The Millworks Project website has an ideas page, Ingram said, and there will be more open houses. 

A neighborhood meeting to provide updates on the BoardMill project and discuss feedback will be scheduled soon, Hegstad said.

Interim uses like the container village and pump track are activating the space already and upcoming events like the Northwest Tune-Up FestivalApril Brews Day and the Shoestring Circus are creating excitement on the waterfront, Hogan said. 

“I often describe the Millworks project as a proofpoint,” Ingram said. “It’s an example of what’s possible if we integrate economic and community development in all the ways that are going to be good for the community.”

There are still unclaimed areas along the waterfront district. Those involved hope that engagement and vision for the waterfront will only grow as the first generation of development reaches completion. 

“When it was just a fenced off area with no infrastructure or no roads or anything there, there was a lot of hesitancy for developers,” Gouran said. “But now that they see the proof of concept and there’s people down there, I think we’re going to start to see more and more ideas coming through in both proposals as well as when we reach out.” 

— Reported by Kai Uyehara

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