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Bellingham Herald  March 05, 2009

Port, Bellingham, city officials warm up to architects' waterfront plan

By John Stark

BELLINGHAM - Port of Bellingham and city officials have responded warmly to a local architects' report that attempts to find common ground on divisive waterfront redevelopment issues.

"I think it's a significant step forward," Mayor Dan Pike said after the nine architects explained their work at a joint meeting of port commissioners and City Council members Wednesday, March 4.

Port Commission President Scott Walker agreed.

"I would be surprised if everybody bought into your plan here 100 percent," Walker told the architects. "But for the most part, I agree with it."

Walker embraced the architect group's proposal to build a new city library near the waterfront south of Chestnut Street, between Bay and Commercial streets, as part of a mixed-use building that would include parking and could be built partly with private funds. That idea already had been floated by Pike.

"We'd be willing to work with the city on land trades or whatever you need to do that down there," Walker told Pike.

Most of the 220 waterfront acres slated for redevelopment are owned by the port, but the city controls planning and zoning regulations. The city is also responsible for construction of new streets and bridges to open up the idle industrial area for construction of homes, shops, offices, and a new satellite campus for Western Washington University.

In recent months, port and city officials have been at odds over where streets should go, and whether a number of older industrial buildings on the property are worth saving.

Port officials also have pushed for sweeping pre-approvals for some building types and sizes, to enable developers to start projects quickly without lengthy review at City Hall. Pike has expressed serious misgivings about that approach.

On both the street system and building preservation, the architects tried to find a middle ground.

Group member Sharon Robinson told the elected officials that extending existing downtown streets straight into the northern portion of the site would help connect the waterfront and downtown, as Pike has argued. But after it enters the site along its current route, Commercial Street should be angled into an east-west path, with a wide, greenery-lined design that the architects dub "Park Street."

The architects say the east-west street alignment advocated by the port and its consultants would be better for solar energy systems and views while being less exposed to prevailing southwesterly winds.

On building preservation, group member Curt Carpenter said the architects would like the port and city to pay for a study to determine what new uses might be found for industrial buildings on the site. Those that appear most promising are the Granary Building, the old pulp mill steam plant, the board mill, and the barking and chipping building.

Conspicuously absent from that list is the old Georgia-Pacific Corp. pulp digester building - by far the tallest building on the site, at more than 150 feet. Port officials doubt that the building can be saved, because it consists of a brick shell built around giant processing tanks.

Carpenter said after the meeting that the architects' group does not advocate the demolition of anything at this point, but the drawbacks of the digester building are real.

On the regulatory issues, the architects clearly sided with the port.

"It has to be a relatively easy permitting process," group member David Christensen said.

That means once the master plan and zoning regulations are complete, developers should be able to get building permits for conforming structures without a lengthy environmental study process and public hearings, Christensen said.

Christensen also acknowledged that in the current economic environment, redeveloping all 220 acres could take even longer than the 20 or 30 years that port and city officials have been talking about. Rather than let many of those acres sit idle all that time, Christensen said officials should look for shorter-term uses to prevent much of the site from turning into a wasteland.

City Council member Gene Knutson said the quality of the architects' work - done on a volunteer basis, for free - called into question the wisdom of paying large sums to out-of-town consulting firms for similar work.

"Bellingham has some of the best minds and expertise right here in this community," Knutson said. "Let's use them."