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Port of Bellingham: We’re proud of our temporary waterfront solutions

Some criticism is valid, but give credit for port's 'thoughtful approach'

Stephanie Short teaches Emmeline and Sonny how to hula-hoop at Trackside Beer Garden during the Northwest Tune-Up Festival on July 16
Stephanie Short teaches Emmeline and Sonny how to hula-hoop at Trackside Beer Garden during the Northwest Tune-Up Festival on July 16 (Sophia Nunn/Cascadia Daily News)
By Rob Fix Guest Writer

We appreciate the opportunity to address concerns expressed by some members of our community about Bellingham’s waterfront redevelopment. The Port recognizes this is first and foremost a community-focused project requiring strong partnerships and commitment to implement a long-term, generational vision. 

Success takes a steady and thoughtful management approach which has seen us through a number of changing conditions. As a local government, we encourage public comment and value the diverse perspectives and opinions which make our projects stronger and contribute to the vibrancy of our community.

One ongoing concern has been the environmental cleanup of the site. The port was recently accused of a slipshod job of decontaminating the site and not doing a thorough and comprehensive cleanup of the toxic legacy left behind by Georgia-Pacific. While some criticisms may be valid, this is not one of them.

The Washington State Department of Ecology oversees and approves all environmental cleanups and is responsible for enforcing strict cleanup standards. Ecology has been a terrific partner to the port and City of Bellingham and would never compromise its mission to protect human health and the environment by allowing anything less than comprehensive cleanup. 

We encourage all community members to really dig into and understand the work that has been completed rather than assuming the worst with little or no substantive information. 

Another criticism has been the slow pace of development and lack of progress. Community development projects do take longer, but comprehensive public engagement has given us a Master Plan that reflects Whatcom County’s values. We now have a thoughtful approach toward limited waterfront land, which balances working waterfront jobs, public access, sustainability, salmon habitat, residential and commercial uses, and other community priorities. 

Redeveloping contaminated industrial property is complicated, expensive and takes longer than “greenfield” sites like Barkley Village. This process is frustrating for the port too, but we have made a lot of progress since taking over a sprawling industrial complex with no roads, infrastructure or public access. 

This past summer, port-sponsored events like the Northwest Tune-Up and Noisy Waters Mural festivals brought thousands of people to Bellingham’s waterfront. The restored Granary building is iconic and the Mercy Housing Northwest Millworks affordable housing project is nearly complete. These affordable apartments will get hot water from the District Energy system which is up and running and ready to supply low-carbon heating and cooling to all buildings on the waterfront using pipes the port installed under the roads.

The new condominiums along Granary Avenue are scheduled to open this year and will include ground-floor commercial spaces helping make the waterfront a year-round destination. Next up is the transformation of the historic Boardmill Building into a boutique hotel and conference center. Local developers have submitted permits for the Boardmill hotel and plan for it to anchor a vibrant block of public plazas, residences and restaurants served by a multi-story parking garage. To see their exciting vision, visit portofbellingham.com/boardmill.

The scale of this cleanup and redevelopment project combined with local market absorption rates, means full build-out will take many years. This is a big reason the port got creative with temporary public access (like the pump track and ASB trail) and is building a pop-up container village. We are proud these projects have been so well received and Kulshan Trackside was recognized as “The Raddest Beer Garden in the Pacific Northwest” by Forbes. The Portal Container Village will get bigger and better this summer with more restrooms, Zeeks Pizza, Bin 13 Wine Bar and another rotating retail container for local artists. 

As more people enjoy the waterfront, some community members are concerned temporary features like the bike park and container village will be taken away. Rest assured, the port signed a 10-year lease with Kulshan Trackside and is planning to expand The Portal Container Village in years to come. Although most of the bike park is located on land reserved for a future park, there are no current plans to remove this incredibly popular public access feature. In fact, this spring the port is partnering with Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition to add a Bigfoot Bike Park Adventure Zone for young riders.

Although there have been disappointments along the way, our entire community should feel confident the future of the waterfront is bright. The Port Commission is excited about the plans for the Boardmill Building brought forth by local developers and will be looking at similar partnerships moving forward. In the meantime, the port will continue to support interim uses in support of the community’s vision of a vibrant downtown waterfront.

We welcome ongoing dialogue with all the residents of Whatcom County. By working together, we can continue to build an amazing waterfront. Thank you for your continued engagement and helping make our waterfront a better place.

Rob Fix is executive director of the Port of Bellingham.

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