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After 12 years of more talk than action, work on Bellingham’s central waterfront is finally underway

Bellingham’s potentially iconic “Acid Ball” along the Whatcom Creek Waterway is a remnant of the old Georgia-Pacific pulp mill that now stands at the new Waypoint Park, the first vestige of a long-awaited waterfront-development project that has left many Bellingham residents short on patience. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

Most of the redevelopment work is nonetheless within the works, however even now, residents truly can entry Bellingham Bay.

AT ONE OF the various new native brewpubs — locals stopped counting after the primary dozen — wisecracking skeptics up within the Fourth Nook could be tempted to write down off the spendy, long-delayed Bellingham waterfront redevelopment undertaking as a merciless joke, sprung on graying-hippie native residents by fleeing captains of business: “Want your precious natural waterfront, free of our toxins (and jobs), to remake on your own terms, in your own greenie image? Knock yourselves out, kids.”

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What we will study from Bellingham’s on-again waterfront restoration

This truly occurred to Bellingham in December 2007, when timber big Georgia-Pacific, whose smoke-belching waterfront pulp mill — for many years, the supply of rancid-tuna-smelling industrial-fart clouds that wafted throughout the town — shut down the once-robust facility and handed the keys to 137 acres of prime waterfront property to the native port district.

The deal — commonplace when resource-extractors full stated activity and transfer on — was easy: You, the individuals, get all of it, for 10 bucks and a handshake! And, oh: The 80 years’ value of mercury and different toxins dumped on the bottom and pumped into close by Bellingham Bay? You get that, too. No givebacks. Please don’t name or textual content.

In hindsight, it’s straightforward to see why the Port of Bellingham, a comparatively diminutive public physique more snug operating marinas and a small regional airport, chomped on the bait — spring-loaded toxic-waste lure be damned. Who wouldn’t? How typically, actually, does a Northwest timber-fish city that fancies itself born of the ocean get an opportunity to not solely Tear Down That Wall between the individuals and the water, but in addition remake the very face it tasks to the Pacific Rim?

Not very.

The digital scraping-off-the-map of the final vestige of the city’s environmentally ugly previous introduced a uncommon alternative for a full makeover of Bellingham, a metropolis of 89,000-plus, nearer to Vancouver, B.C., than Seattle — a spot that priced-out, disenchanted Seattle-area residents more and more eye curiously, even longingly, as a kind of exurban escape hatch.

The early buzz was all lucky-duck pluckiness: We will make the complete factor a signature inexperienced area! The general public will personal all of the land! Assume not of tall buildings, however tall timber and better functions. Close by Western Washington College might be related — by a cloud-skirting gondola! And so on.

However the clean canvas introduced by the mill’s demise revealed an instructive lesson a few city the place ardour typically overwhelms practicality, and folk are usually not all the time on the identical web page: Market realities typically dampen enthusiasm and may even nurture paralysis.

More than a dozen years after planning started to exchange the town’s central waterfront mill, what do Bellinghamsters have to point out for all these lofty, postindustrial ambitions?

A a lot cleaner shoreline. Sufficient scoping and “ideation” paperwork to fill a small warehouse. A wee waterfront park with a brief piece of remanufactured shoreline. And perched close by, like a rusty boiled egg on the metropolis’s new Waypoint Park, the 32-foot-wide “Acid Ball,” a Steampunk-evoking industrial remnant of the plant preserved as what even the mayor describes with a wink as a “10-percent-for-the-arts thing.”

The hulking ball, sprayed with iridescent coating, lights up — a bit — at night time, and already has turn into an area dialog piece. However it’s not precisely Area Needle North, in a city-icon type of method.

Native residents drive previous it, conjure a toxic-cleanup tab more likely to climb past $100 million in native, state and insurance coverage cash, and ask: Is that it?

The long-lasting “Acid Ball” alongside the Whatcom Creek Waterway is a remnant of the previous Georgia-Pacific pulp mill and now stands on the new Waypoint Park. Downtown Bellingham looms behind the waterway and the ball. A sailboat makes its means between two parked barges. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Occasions)

The long-lasting “Acid Ball” alongside the Whatcom Creek Waterway is a remnant of the previous Georgia-Pacific pulp mill and now stands on the new Waypoint Park. Downtown Bellingham looms behind the waterway and the ball. A sailboat makes its approach between two parked barges. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Occasions)

WELL … NO. A lot more is to return, and redevelopment of Bellingham’s central waterfront is, after a decade and a half of noodling and cleanup, underway. The previous G-P land, mixed with different properties since consolidated by the town and port, now stands at 237 acres of potential shore-lapping greatness, half of what port spokesman Mike Hogan calls, “one of the largest contaminated property cleanup and redevelopment projects on the West Coast.”

The primary part is 170 acres, and the primary actual precise constructing undertaking, a reworked historic Granary Constructing, is poised to open with shoppers rumored to incorporate a public-market-style enterprise and a restaurant. The Metropolis of Bellingham, the port’s shotgun-marriage undertaking companion, has paved two roads throughout the undertaking property closest to downtown, the primary metropolis streets atop a harborfront consisting totally of deposited fill.

Harcourt Developments, the Dublin-based agency now firmly in cost of what goes right here and when, has drawn up plans for a (shock!) condominium construction alongside Whatcom Waterway and, after that, conversion of one of the few previous G-P buildings left standing, the Boardmill, right into a lodge/conference middle.

When part one is constructed out — one other 20 years down the street, probably, relying on financial elements — metropolis and port planners anticipate a mélange of commerce, residences, parks, promenades and lightweight business. All as deliberate. Type of. WWU, the 15,500-student native financial engine that looms immediately above, on the aspect of Sehome Hill, could have its personal 6-acre presence there — still-undefined.

Metropolis, port and college officers look longingly on the bigger challenge as connective tissue that finally will tie all of Bellingham’s present waterfront parts collectively. And importantly, it’s going to permit Bellinghamsters strolling in an already-percolating downtown core to finally “touch the water” of Bellingham Bay, one thing they haven’t been capable of do for more than a century. (Locals: Insert hand-washing quip right here.)

However attending to the precipice of all this has been, to many, exasperatingly troublesome. The present worry is that the event, regardless of its passionately deliberate previous, will emerge as merely more of the cookie-cutter business creep already seen on adjoining Port of Bellingham properties such because the Bellwether improvement, a mixture of park area and tall buildings that in locations blot out views of the water, the San Juan Islands, the distant Olympic Mountains and close by Mount Baker.

It has not gone unnoticed that the waterfront district’s exhaustive public waterfront scoping course of — which started in 2005, earlier than the G-P property was even handed over — has resulted in little more than delegating future selections to a … personal developer, not solely from out of city(!), however out of nation.

Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville at the new Waypoint Park along the slowly transforming city waterfront in her hometown. The second-term mayor, a former state legislator and daughter of a commercial fisherman, sees connecting Bellingham’s already-percolating downtown core with its waterfront roots as key to her political legacy. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville at the new Waypoint Park along the slowly transforming city waterfront in her hometown. The second-term mayor, a former state legislator and daughter of a commercial fisherman, sees connecting Bellingham’s already-percolating downtown core with its waterfront roots as key to her political legacy. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville on the new Waypoint Park alongside the slowly reworking metropolis waterfront in her hometown. The second-term mayor, a former state legislator and daughter of a business fisherman, sees connecting Bellingham’s already-percolating downtown core with its waterfront roots as key to her political legacy. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Occasions)

THAT FIRM, HARCOURT, has a strong fame for comparable work, most of it a lot bigger in scale, in Europe. Its early plans for the Bellingham website have been panned as too showy and futuristic for the native crabpot, wool and recycled-barn-board sensibilities. Even the present mayor, former 42nd District state legislator Kelli Linville — a fourth-Gen Bellinghamster, business fisherman’s daughter, WWU grad, previous instructor’s union stalwart and the fourth mayor to deal with the Waterfront Drawback — was a critic, calling Harcourt’s first-draft plans “futuristic-looking and way modern,” and noting: “It didn’t fit Bellingham.”

However she since has walked (and boated) the location with Harcourt officers, who’ve warmed to city-pushed makes an attempt to save lots of more of the previous G-P industrial artifacts (the Acid Ball being one) as design parts for the town’s latest neighborhood, within the custom of Seattle’s Fuel Works Park. She believes they’re beginning to get it, and she or he is bullish on the venture.

Linville claims credit score for bringing the once-feuding port and metropolis nearer collectively, into what now appears a productive alliance. She sees the waterfront venture as crucial to the longer term of an fascinating, walkable city core that has rebounded on its personal after the shopping-mall flight of main retailers in the course of the 1980s. Key to her personal legacy, she says, might be “making sure that downtown’s going to flow into the waterfront.”

Mount Baker looms behind sailboats and the Port of Bellingham. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)Mount Baker looms behind sailboats and the Port of Bellingham. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

Mount Baker looms behind sailboats and the Port of Bellingham. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Occasions)

It’d take one other 25 years, Linville warns, for all of the hyperlinks to be established, and previous psychological maps to be redrawn. However as a public officeholder for 4 many years, she sees the snail’s tempo as an unlucky norm. The waterfront makeover, regardless of its matches and nonstarts, nonetheless may make the town the Puget Sound vacation spot beacon the challenge promised so way back, she believes.

“The thing I always say about Bellingham is that we are large enough to have some resources, but we’re small enough to have relationships,” Linville says. “And that’s what makes us unique. We had to suffer through years of community meetings … but in the end, having done that, we have more of a consensus now.”

In fact, she nonetheless frequently hears from previous pals and highschool classmates who’re essential of the challenge — or so burned out from the planning course of, they consider “consensus” is now a patronizing afterthought.

Linville will get that, however notes: “Those are people who had, you know, skin in the game. If you talk to the public in general, the Acid Ball goes up, and they’re thrilled!”

 

THAT’S A BIT of playful overstatement, however level made. Nonetheless, many within the metropolis of overeducated, largely underpaid, mountain-bicycle-riding professionals, college students and artists legitimately ponder whether the town’s new Salish Seaward face will honor the beating coronary heart of a spot they nonetheless see as distinctive. The context: The native vibe — that of an eclectic maritime-oriented haven with a cool combine of small business, hippie-infused chill, higher-ed-influenced youth tradition and hardy outside vigor — is already being poisoned by creeping, Seattle-influenced progress and gentrification.

The city, with its first white settlers arriving within the 1850s, claiming lands previously occupied by the Lummi, Nooksack and different Coast Salish individuals, was a rough-around-the-edges conglomeration of 4 smaller cities: Whatcom, Sehome, Fairhaven and Bellingham, which merged right into a single metropolis in 1904. For many years, the waterfront hosted the most important salmon canneries, and among the many most-massive timber operations, on the planet.

That industrial wealth pale over time into a mixture of more-modest present industries. The most important native employers at the moment are well being care, authorities and service-oriented, however the metropolis helps an oft-overlooked, eclectic manufacturing base — pizza ovens, bible software program, breakfast cookies, airplane-interior designs and aluminum passenger ferries amongst its many wares — and in current years launched a warp-drive brewpub tradition. It ceaselessly lands on Greatest-Locations-to-Reside lists that always catch the attention of retirees, trust-funders and telecommuters.

Bellingham’s long-delayed waterfront venture is seen as key connective tissue for present metropolis public areas, akin to Boulevard Park, seen right here, and a way to finally permit residents, after 100 years, to “touch the water” of Bellingham Bay. However a proposal to attach Boulevard Park, by way of an overwater pedestrian pier, to future metropolis park property, beneath the white plastic sheeting seen within the distance, stays on maintain. The 17-acre “white baggie” park website, an previous metropolis landfill tentatively referred to as Cornwall Seashore Park, awaits cleanup. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Occasions)Bellingham’s long-delayed waterfront challenge is seen as key connective tissue for present metropolis public areas, corresponding to Boulevard Park, seen right here, and a way to finally permit residents, after 100 years, to “touch the water” of Bellingham Bay. However a proposal to attach Boulevard Park, by way of an overwater pedestrian pier, to future metropolis park property, beneath the white plastic sheeting seen within the distance, stays on maintain. The 17-acre “white baggie” park website, an previous metropolis landfill tentatively referred to as Cornwall Seashore Park, awaits cleanup. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Occasions)

Bellingham’s long-delayed waterfront challenge is seen as key connective tissue for present metropolis public areas, comparable to Boulevard Park, seen right here, and a way to finally permit residents, after 100 years, to “touch the water” of Bellingham Bay. However a proposal to attach Boulevard Park, by way of an overwater pedestrian pier, to future metropolis park property, beneath the white plastic sheeting seen within the distance, stays on maintain. The 17-acre “white baggie” park website, an previous metropolis landfill tentatively referred to as Cornwall Seashore Park, awaits cleanup. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Occasions)

The town’s left-leaning political current is partially a product of its medium-term previous — particularly amongst native gray-hairs drawn within the 1960s and ’70s to the town’s Fairhaven neighborhood, a nationwide counterculture middle of some renown. One of these hippies was John Blethen, who ran an natural pizza dispensary/hangout, Toad Corridor, full with its personal compulsory home bluegrass band. (Blethen is a distant relative of Seattle Occasions writer Frank Blethen, and is not concerned with the newspaper.)

“We had lots of live music and folk dancing and dollar pizza night and … it was hippie town, and I was right there,” he says with a chuckle.

In his golden years, Blethen, now 75, stepped as much as captain a lot of the early planning for the waterfront challenge, which he calls an earnest try to mix all of the city’s historic, working-class maritime roots and trendy, inexperienced values into the inspiration of what coulda-shoulda been Bellingham’s showcase neighborhood.

This wasn’t only a pipe dream of a number of, however a broad consensus of residents who’re dedicated to parks, open area and large views, Blethen says, noting that metropolis residents have voted persistently to tax themselves, to the tune of $100 million over almost three many years, to purchase and keep inexperienced areas.

“I think there’s still a high level of idealism in this community,” says Blethen, who now runs a downtown cupboard enterprise that sits, like most every thing else right here, a brief stroll from the vacant waterfront property. “Some of it doesn’t know how to be directed, but you see it. There’s a high level of desire to do good.”

Draw back?

“I hate to say it, but it is a town of talkers,” Blethen says. “The town is process-oriented, and maybe at some point, you have to realize that you have to translate process into action. And how you move stuff along is the whole trick.”

That, Blethen believes, is one of the tripwires that blew up what he and different early planners believed “would happen very quickly.”

Bellingham’s aerated solids basin is ringed by a waterfront path that affords outstanding views of the city’s downtown core, future waterfront development and Mount Baker. It also offers glimpses through a fence of the city’s heavy-industrial past — in this case, an aeration basin used for waste treatment. The enclosed, plastic-lined waterfront pond, once tabbed for use as a luxury-yacht marina, might find future use as a stormwater-treatment facility and perhaps as a fish hatchery. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)Bellingham’s aerated solids basin is ringed by a waterfront path that affords outstanding views of the city’s downtown core, future waterfront development and Mount Baker. It also offers glimpses through a fence of the city’s heavy-industrial past — in this case, an aeration basin used for waste treatment. The enclosed, plastic-lined waterfront pond, once tabbed for use as a luxury-yacht marina, might find future use as a stormwater-treatment facility and perhaps as a fish hatchery. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

Bellingham’s aerated solids basin is ringed by a waterfront path that affords excellent views of the town’s downtown core, future waterfront improvement and Mount Baker. It additionally gives glimpses via a fence of the town’s heavy-industrial previous — on this case, an aeration basin used for waste remedy. The enclosed, plastic-lined waterfront pond, as soon as tabbed to be used as a luxury-yacht marina, may discover future use as a stormwater-treatment facility and maybe as a fish hatchery. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Occasions)

WHAT HAPPENED, or didn’t, is difficult, however the record of course of lowlights — largely agreed to by principals — may show instructive:

• The port and metropolis didn’t play nicely collectively, and typically nonetheless don’t. Primary position boundaries weren’t well-defined, private jealousies clouded judgment, and administrations got here and went. Solely lately has détente been achieved. And critics recommend in hindsight that the port, a small entity with annual budgets round $25 million, didn’t have the type of improvement chops needed for the job.

• The recession of 2008 shortly threw venture economics off-kilter. This was very true of plans for what then was thought-about a key function of the challenge — development of a large-boat marina that the port noticed as an financial driver for your complete redevelopment. It was to be inbuilt G-P’s aerated solids basin, or ASB, a sprawling waste-treatment pond adjoining to the mill property. Others engaged within the venture thought the ASB can be a more becoming cap-cover house for contaminants scooped up elsewhere. The ASB’s destiny stays unsure, however the port fee is now taking a look at different makes use of, Hogan says. Critics say the fixation on a big-yacht marina clouded the port’s imaginative and prescient for the bigger venture from the get-go.

• The bottom/water cleanup challenge itself, immensely costly and sophisticated, took eight years to get rolling. It’s damaged into six phases, every requiring signoffs to unencumber matching cash from the state, or an insurance coverage coverage that caps the port’s long-term publicity.

• Bellingham missed what almost everybody now concedes might have been the right waterfront-makeover catalyst — luring the Nationwide Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the town waterfront when its Pacific base was in play in 2007. Blethen, former Mayor Dan Pike and lots of others blame the port for not aggressively pursuing relocation of NOAA from Lake Union to Bellingham, which appeared higher suited than what would turn out to be its new residence in Newport, Oregon. NOAA would have been a pure match for WWU science packages, and a recession-resistant financial engine for native shipyards.

Regardless of all this, Blethen nonetheless holds a glimmer of hope that “the Irish people,” AKA Harcourt, will embrace some of the general public’s early imaginative and prescient, which was crystal-clear: “The number-one thing that we heard over and over again was that people wanted to touch the water, after 100 years of not being able to do that.”

The Port of Bellingham waterfront project includes 170 acres of central waterfront to be redeveloped after the Georgia-Pacific pulp mill closed in 2007. This view of the old mill is from Boulevard Park, on Bellingham Bay along South State Street. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)The Port of Bellingham waterfront project includes 170 acres of central waterfront to be redeveloped after the Georgia-Pacific pulp mill closed in 2007. This view of the old mill is from Boulevard Park, on Bellingham Bay along South State Street. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

The Port of Bellingham waterfront undertaking consists of 170 acres of central waterfront to be redeveloped after the Georgia-Pacific pulp mill closed in 2007. This view of the previous mill is from Boulevard Park, on Bellingham Bay alongside South State Road. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Occasions)

THEY CAN DO precisely that, immediately, at Waypoint Park, the lone non-cyclone-fenced outpost on the 237-acre website. As Linville concedes, it won’t be a lot, however it’s one thing. And that’s key to maintaining the challenge — aided, on the town aspect, by state Native Infrastructure Financing Software (LIFT) matching grants — on monitor.

The town and port, their very own roles finally, firmly separated into “city-building” infrastructure and improvement, respectively, push forward with their very own plans, all aimed toward a mixed-use improvement that opens the city to the ocean whereas nonetheless offering “family-wage jobs.” Momentum might speed up, they consider, when the brick G-P Boardmill takes form as a vacation spot lodge. The town additionally continues to chip away at its personal large cleanup for an adjoining 17-acre waterfront park on a contaminated landfill website.

The ASB remedy lagoon, lengthy thought-about an eyesore, holds distinctive promise of its personal, now that the port appears finally able to let go of its marina dream. Potential future makes use of embrace stormwater remedy, and maybe even a fish hatchery, powered by an enormous water foremost constructed to offer recent water from the Nooksack River to the previous mill.

The preliminary park-heavy, public-ownership imaginative and prescient for the property has, for probably the most half, been deserted, though activists proceed to bird-dog the event piece by piece because it comes up for allow assessment. Even avowed dreamers similar to Blethen begrudgingly admit that the town’s future, like its previous, can be pushed more by market considerations than public imaginative and prescient.

He’s OK with that, to an extent, and confesses that he recently has had some (secret) regrets about not placing jobs more to the entrance edge of the planning desk all these years in the past.

What would have occurred, he whispers, in order to not blurt out blasphemy at an area espresso home, if native authorities, moderately than lustfully bulldozing the historic relic of the pulp mill, had retooled it as a “green” facility — and stored it operating?

“You know, a good, clean pulp mill that doesn’t leak mercury into the ground and stuff like that,” he says. (He could be kidding. Or perhaps not.) “Because you get all this recycled cardboard … there’s a potential there. We had people around who knew how to make it work!”

He doesn’t assume the town’s preliminary pleasure over its waterfront makeover was utterly wasted. However he does consider the saga serves as a be-careful-what-you-ask-for cautionary story. And, like many others, he merely can’t get previous feeling resentment over the ratio of time/emotion invested to possible tangible return in the course of the lifetimes of the buyers.

“What’s that (Lawrence) Ferlinghetti line?” he asks, referring, in proud Fairhaven hippie-alum style, to a 1958 “Beat” poem, which incorporates these memorable strains:

… and I’m ready

for the ultimate withering away

of all governments

and I’m perpetually awaiting

a rebirth of marvel

“That’s kind of how I feel about it.”