Posted by: sweeneyblog | December 9, 2013

Bellingham Waterfront 101

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.

Recent History

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


Waterfront Development

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?

This image is only 30% subtext

This image is only 30% subtext

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.

Final Thoughts

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.



  1. I don’t know enough to correct your history, but I would challenge the statement, “After that, the Port and City will begin work.” More likely, after that, the Port and City defend appeals. I, for one, don’t think time for appeal of the EIS runs until the “final” action, as in third and final. With Ecology on the record questioning it….
    PS If anyone has a link to Ecology’s comment, please send to me.

  2. For one man’s opinion of the mayors’ relative roles, see Alex McLean’s comment after this NW Citizen post:

  3. “Several people smarter than me have pointed out that the sediment there is very fluid and that these materials will shift over time.”

    Not to mention all the mercury and neurotoxins in the bay itself. If not remediated properly, what happens when sea levels rise? Will this create the an architecturally interesting but uninhabitable brownfield?

    This bay – water and soil – needs to be remediated. yes, it would delay the development for another decade, but in the long term, might the best thing be to get it named a Superfund site and make Georgia Pacific foot the entire clean-up?

    • It’s my understanding that the ocean levels do not rise uniformly and that our coast will likely see very little in the way of rising levels. It has to do with gravity distribution throughout the planet.

  4. I personally think that the following statement is worthy of further investigation before accepting as fact:

    ” 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”

    My opinion is based on reading on reading: “Cornwall Avenue Landfill Interim Action Plan”, Bellingham, WA prepared for the Port by Landau Associates, and submitted to the State Department of Ecology. I participated in public comments on this document. This is with regards to the old city dump, not the GP site. In the alternative the Port apparently supports, I personally do not believe groundwater flows will be appropriately contained and the geotextile they seem to propose using is, in my opinion, too thin to be effective over time.

    I have yet to read similar reports for the GP site, but I think that careful consideration is necessary

    Waterfront toxins can’t be just “paved over”. Removal is very difficult and containment is quite complex. Looking long term, sea level rise will present a whole new set of issues, in which toxins may be percualated upwards.

    Bellingham is a small city dealing with global level problems.

    • From what I’ve read, capping will not work but that is the current plan.

  5. We certainly don’t need an extension of Huxley College there.

  6. Riley,
    Thank you for your summary. You have mentioned design and conceptual choices, and their preclusion (e.g. non-marina choices for ASB).

    Another aspect that needs to be remembered is that the Mayor Mark/ Mayor Kelli/ Director Fix policy is revolutionary in terms of how COB does projects. The revolution is that the city taxpayer, not the developer, will pay for infrastructure. To my mind, this is at least as important, if not more so, than design choices. And we are not talking pin money here- somewhere between 200-400 million of public investment!

    I cannot blame this exclusively on the situation with Bellingham’s local newspaper. Yes, it’s problematic to say that we have reporting on more than high school sports and local crime. But even very educated, smart, passionate activists have largely ignored the “who’s going to pay for it” aspect.

    Am I the only curmudgeon? The only old guy with green eyeshades?

    I find it curious that Council never voted on this arrangement, and that (if I believe what I’ve been told) Mark Asmundsen’s signature on the January 2005 Interlocal was the sole necessary legitimizing step as far as city governing is concerned. Huh? Don’t we have a bipartite city government? There is a difference between a “weak” council and a non-existent council.

    After all is said and done, I cannot think of a single example of Council asserting its authority in opposition to the Mayor Mark/ Mayor Kelli/ Director Fix policy revolution. Oh, yeah, some griping and carping, but no majority votes in opposition.

    When the Chamber of Commerce chortles its satisfaction, you should be afraid, very afraid. You are about to get “served” like, as Will Rogers quipped, the bull services the cow.

    Long live the unitary executive.

    Abe Jacobson

    • Abe I always find your comments informed and reasoned and worth the time to read. Do you have a Blog per chance or a Facebook page where you post your writings? It is no small thing to say that your observations and writings on this (and many other local issues) is as informed or more than our local “newspaper”.

  7. The driving force behind this marina is a ‘waiting list’ of yachts circling in the Bay to move into the New Clean Ocean Marina. Like labeling it a Clean Marina is enough to fool the public, tells folks a lot of what Port staff thinks of the public’s intellect.

    The Port staff further challenges the public’s intellect with its “waiting list”. It costs $25 to get on the waiting list.

    Other harbors have adopted a better model for determining “true” demand for moorage stalls. It is called the empty berth system.

    Other marinas simply count empty stalls, as this is a better determinant of true demand.

    Today Shilsole has empty stalls, Anacortes has empty stalls, Bremerton has empty stalls, and Everett has almost 500 empty stalls. Many of these stalls are for 30 foot boats which are more and more being taken out of the water in the winter. Many of these 30 foot stalls are being converted into 40-50 foot stalls, which is turning a glut of empty 30 foot stalls into a glut of 40-50 foot stalls in the region.

    Now there are more 40-50 foot stalls than there are yachts to fill them, and Bellingham is proposing to build more.

    The Port famously hired a consultant in 2006 and he predicted there would be a shortage of 3,000 stalls in northern Puget Sound by 2010. Now we upon 2014, and this prediction of a 3,000 stall shortage failed to materialize, when in fact the total number of boats moored in the water actually shrank.

    The Port in reality spent tens of thousands in consulting fees to generate an erroneous predication to validate what the Port want to do in the first place.

    Count empty stalls, not a $25 waiting list.

  8. This is but a bit part in a larger play across the US, the European Union and dozens of other countries where governments; local (that be Bellingham), regional and national, have been lulled into drinking the Kool-Aid of wealth transfer to the corporations. From our pockets to theirs in an ever increasing flow about which most of us are dimly aware or prefer to ignore in the hope that we will no longer be around when the whole stinking mass collapses of its own weight. We snort and snuffle about the edges of issues played out on a stage that has been set for decades and over which we have ceded control. In that context, none of this port stuff is surprising. Let’s go back to reality TV, Monday night football, TV Nooze, Black Friday, Christmas, and all the other diversions that we pass on to our progeny, all the while ignoring the proliferation of turds in the punchbowl (war, depression, global climate change, pollution, political gridlock, etc.) and how they got there. Tiddly pom.

    • But what about the Seahawks? I hear they are going to the superbowl.

      • Twit! 🙂

      • Note also that George Dyson in the last issue of Cascadia Weekly wrote a column on the same theme as my comment above. Check out page 6 of the pdf version of the Cascadia Weekly for Dyson’s piece entitled Bamboozled.

        Here is a quote from Dyson. “This was (and is) the largest trans-
        fer of costs from the private sector to the public sector in the history of Whatcom County, and probably the state. However, partly because of the collapse of the market following the
        Port’s purchase, even after the deauthorization of the waterway and the abandoning of GP’s cleanup plans, there was still an enormous bill left sitting on the table. And the port (having already enjoyed a 100 percent tax holiday on the property for almost 10 years) has successfully convinced the city, saying, “Hey, we are partners now,” to pick up the tab—by labeling this as “infrastructure costs.”If this sounds insane, it is.”

  9. […] my simple explanation of the Waterfront Redevelopment was a big hit. If there is another topic you would like me to tackle, send me an email here and […]

  10. Riley,
    You owe us Waterfront 102 before launching off to another topic, but if you were to leave the waterfront alone, I would hope you would start on Water 101. Just because the majority of the population lives in Bellingham, doesn’t mean that Whatcom County’s “higher water usage than water flow” doesn’t affect EVERYONE.

  11. […] Simple, Sweeney” explanations of local political issues, check out some of these articles: Bellingham Waterfront 101, what is the Growth Management Act, and why can’t we pass gun […]

  12. […] does that mean when it comes to the waterfront? Maute-Gibson believes in a need to be very selective about the sort of developers that we involve […]

  13. […] administration has been marked by some dramatic movement on the Port, but also some sharp criticism over her struggles with the Roosevelt neighborhood, her support for […]

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