This is another entry in my “Keep it Simple, Sweeney” category (you can find the other entries here), where I take a big complicated issue and break it down into easy-to-understand parts.
The Bellingham Waterfront
For many residents, their understanding of the waterfront revolves around these three points:
1. There once was a Georgia Pacific plant there, but it shut down.
2. The area is really toxic.
3. Nothing has happened there for at least a decade.
All true, but recently there has been a whole flurry of activity. Headlines proclaiming that there is a plan and it is being voted upon. So what happened? I’m painting with a broad brush, so you lose some of the nuance, but here is the general shape of it.
While Mayor Pike was in office, he and the port were at a stalemate over the waterfront. Whether you want to credit that to his combative nature (true) or substantial policy differences (also true), the results were the same: no action on the waterfront. When Mayor Linville took the office, she worked closely with Port Director Rob Fix to develop a waterfront plan and things began to move forward.
However, this forward movement was not free from controversy. When the port considered the plan, reports rolled in that the port commissioners were ignoring public comment or feedback and those complaints continued as the plan ping-ponged back and forth from the port to the city and back again. Central to these objections was the proposed marina.
The Mandatory Marina
One of the central sticking points of the plan was building a marina in the ASB Lagoon. All the plans put forward by the port and confirmed by the city included this marina, despite vigorous testimony from the public. Mitch Friedman, Executive Director of Conservation Northwest, spoke to this issue. “Whether the marina is good or bad, requiring the marina severely limits the possible options.”
Some other potential uses for that lagoon include leaving it as is for stormwater runoff, or filling it with the toxic soil from the waterfront itself as part of the clean up. You can read more about this in Tip Johnson’s excellent piece on Northwest Citizen here.
Why build a Marina? The port maintains there is a high demand for such a facility, but reports are mixed. Jess Halslip, a local fisherman I spoke to, said there was a waiting list for the facilities at Zuanich. However, a new marina near downtown would not appeal to him. “Anacortes is adding spots everyday, and it is much easier to work out of Anacortes than Bellingham.” He clarified that was because of access to fishing, not because of any local facilities.
“The real question is what is the highest and best use of that land,” Friedman continued. He blames the port for forcing this marina into the plan. “The port is one hundred percent the driver on this, and that is the toxic thing. They only considered plans that included the marina and that’s the key place where the faith was broken.” For more details on concerns about the plan, check out Wendy Harris’ article also on Northwest Citizen here.
Wait! What about the clean-up?
There are still tons and tons of toxic material at the waterfront site. Most likely, the port will “cap” these areas, paving them over to prevent the toxins from leaching up into the areas where people will be working. Several people smarter than me have pointed out that the sediment there is very fluid and these materials will shift over time.
The port will, however, sterilize the ASB lagoon in preparation for the marina, a plan Friedman derided as, “cleaning the bucket while leaving your kitchen floor dirty.” The alternative would be pumping the toxic materials into the lagoon, but that could not be done if you are building a marina, hence the earlier disagreements.
How is the City Council involved?
Very good question. Commenters here on this blog have made a great point that the City Council has had a difficult time getting their hands on this project. Without staff of their own, the council has had to rely on information provided to them by city staff, who answer to the mayor, or from the port, in other words, the very people who designed the plans to only include the marina.
Add to this that the candidates for City Council who won this year ran on the platform of needing immediate action on the waterfront. The result? A clear mandate for progress and less time for review, discussion and alteration. Hence you see the dichotomy put forth by the humorous video I aired last week, where the council is not pleased with the plan and does not have enough information to push back with alternatives. They passed the plan last week on a 6-1 vote, with Jack Weiss objecting.
What happens next?
This Monday (today!), the City Council will meet and vote for the third and final time to approve this plan. Many engaged citizens passionate about the port will speak out about the plan, but it is likely this will get approved. After that, the port and city will begin work.
The redevelopment of our waterfront is a huge and complicated issue and I have hardly done it justice here, but this should give you a starting point toward understanding what has been going on. I have more phone calls out to get a grasp on the financial and economic side of this proposal. But whether you believe this is a crucial step forward with a decent plan, or a sell-out of epic proportions, you now have a little more context for digesting the latest news about our waterfront.
If you found this simple explanation helpful, share us on facebook or email this post to your friends. You can also check out my “Keep It Simple, Sweeney” series by clicking here.