The vision for Bellingham’s waterfront just got murkier, but one outcome appears likely: Harcourt Developments will no longer play a significant role.
The Irish company perhaps best known for its Titanic museum in Belfast was developing a vision for 3.7 acres of prime waterfront property next to Trackside beer garden and the pump track: four six-story buildings with shops and apartments. Another 1.6 acres near Harcourt’s Granary Building also awaited the company’s proposal.
But missed deadlines and environmental violations derailed those plans, Port of Bellingham officials say.
The port on Tuesday, Nov. 7 gave Harcourt 30-day notice that it was terminating the company’s development rights on all 5.3 acres, after it missed an Oct. 19 deadline to finish two condominium buildings on Whatcom Waterway.
So it’s back to the drawing board for the port, as it seeks to build out the vacant industrial acreage between Bellingham’s downtown and the shipping terminal.
“Port staff will look to the port commission for direction on how to reactivate downtown waterfront properties formerly under exclusive development rights by Harcourt,” port Public Affairs Administrator Mike Hogan said. “Any decisions about this property will be made in open public meetings.”
In the meantime, Hogan added, the port will support temporary uses on the sites that “encourage community members to visit the waterfront, help rebuild the waterfront economy and support the community’s vision of a vibrant, downtown waterfront.”
In the view of port officials, Harcourt has proven incapable of accomplishing those goals, despite a promise to lead a bold transformation of Bellingham’s waterfront from industrial wasteland to thriving retail and residential core.
“We believed they were bringing a skill set in developing a large property, and the capital that we didn’t have locally at that time,” said port Commissioner Michael Shepard, who was not in office when Harcourt signed on as the waterfront’s master developer in 2015. At the time, Harcourt was the only qualified bidder for the role.
“Along the way, I think, there’s been some challenges with how Harcourt has operated,” Shepard added. “They’ve never really staffed up local professionals on the ground who are interfacing with the community and doing so on a regular basis, and I think that’s been a challenge — especially in a community that’s as locally minded and interested as ours.”
Initially granted rights to develop 18.8 acres of land on the northeast end of the former Georgia-Pacific site, Harcourt missed construction deadlines on two condominium buildings in 2021 and had its share of the waterfront reduced to 7.7 acres.
The development agreement was rewritten in 2021, giving Harcourt until Oct. 19 of this year to complete the two condominium buildings southwest of Waypoint Park. Two years later, the work appears to be about half finished.
Additionally, port officials claim Harcourt violated a plan ironed out in court between the port and the state Department of Ecology on how contaminated soil would be handled at the old pulp mill site. Soil Harcourt excavated during the early stages of construction was allowed to be stockpiled nearby for up to two years. The soil has been sitting behind the Boardmill building for more than three years now, and was still on the site as of Wednesday, Nov. 8, Hogan said.
Due to the numerous breaches of contract claimed by the port, Harcourt’s piece of the waterfront will be just the 2.4 acres it already owns: the renovated Granary Building and the unfinished condominium complex along the waterway.
Harcourt did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
But in a letter to the Port dated Oct. 17 — two days before the project deadline — Harcourt asked for an extension, owing to delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Harcourt also blamed the pandemic for missed deadlines in 2021 and was granted the two-year extension.
This time, the port said COVID-19 was no excuse for Harcourt’s lack of progress on the condominiums, documents show.
Harcourt, meanwhile, maintains it is on schedule to finish all three buildings, with 103 condominiums total, by December 2024, records show.
While the port is stripping Harcourt of its other development rights, Hogan said staff will continue working with the company “to ensure the successful completion of their condominium project.”
Evidence suggests, however, that communication between Harcourt and the port has grown more contentious.
The two sides, which had been communicating directly as recently as last month, began addressing each other through their attorneys last week, according to letters obtained by Cascadia Daily News.