Topic: Port of Bellingham (186)

Of Broken Roads and Re-invented Wheels

Re-imagining Bellingham’s Waterfront

Re-imagining Bellingham’s Waterfront

I recently ran into Harry Skinner, long-time architect of some local reknown, now an octogenarian. His decades of design and planning experience have left him hard pressed to feel the joy he imagines he should from plans for our central waterfront. In fact, Harry has started a new citizen’s committee whose goal is to plumb the public’s opinions and hopefully re-inform what he considers to be the grave mistake of over-development on the waterfront. Harry wants to re-invent the Port’s development wheel before the waterfront becomes a tragic print of its sorry tread.

I like folks bold enough to re-invent wheels. I was also recently moved by images of broken roads from Alaska’s recent earthquake, so I’m taking the opportunity here to underscore some issues while introducing Mr. Skinner’s brave vision.

The “Committee for Effective Citizen Participation in Government” is not one of your tech-savvy startups. In fact, I had to go out of my way to get a hard copy of their manifesto and scan it for publication here. They don’t have a fancy website. There is a mailing address, a phone number and an email address. Committee members are spreading their message the old-school way, in face-to-face meetings in such places as lunch at the Senior Center.

The Committee’s Waterfront Character Redevelopment Survey asks some basic questions about the waterfront and the Port, underscoring the committee’s concerns over whether citizens understand what the Port is doing and how it serves the public. You can read them yourself. They believe a better public process is needed and cite United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s “Standards of Public Participation - recommendations for Good Practice.”

Their message certainly resonates with the feelings of many diehard citizen participants who eventually gave up trying to keep track of the direction our waterfront was taking, especially when the principal developer turned out to be a foreign company with a checkered reputation and questionable funding. Besides over-development, there is continued concern regarding…

- More cover-up than clean-up
There has been some actual removal, but on a much smaller scale than most alternatives originally outlined by the Bay Action Plan in the first Draft Supplemental Feasibility Study for the Whatcom Waterway. Capping toxins - literally covering them up - is the preferred method. The Department of Ecology has managed their website to make finding anything as frustrating as possible, but you can start here if you’ve the patience for it . Otherwise there is a summary of the original alternatives in an archived Friends of Whatcom County article here. Despite ten years of even more agencies laboring on tax dollars to define these alternatives, the Port unilaterally imposed their own less aggressive standard within a month of acquiring the property.

- Specific significant health issues
At least 500 tons of mercury used by Georgia-Pacific to produce chlorine for bleaching paper remain unaccounted for. Mercury is a powerful neuro-toxin that persists and accumulates in the environment. This concern extends from the site to many unregulated dump sites throughout the area. Remarkably, a theory of “Natural Recovery” concocted by G-P’s Environmental Manager became a guiding principle for the sudden reversal in clean up alternatives that the Port imposed after taking control of the property. The environment does not ‘recover’ from mercury poisoning. No agency or official involved in this design has ever asked Georgia-Pacific about the whereabouts of all their missing mercury. It doesn’t ‘go away.’ Some of the issues are summarized here.

- Public space and amenities
Another guiding principle for the Port has been to get the property “back on the tax rolls.” Most waterfront communities take advantage of rehabilitating deteriorated waterfronts by acquiring more waterfront and improving public access. The Port of Bellingham intends to sell most of this site for private development that benefits mostly the Port. More than six million square feet of mixed-use commercial/residential development is planned. How Bellingham will absorb this development is unclear. One million square feet at Bellis Fair threw downtown into a tailspin for decades. Will ‘upscale’ waterfront development with unmetered parking suck the life out of downtown again? Any such adverse impacts will easily offset any tax roll benefits from development. In any case, feelings are widespread that public space and amenities should have been the first, not last, priorities. Accepted principles of successful waterfront redevelopment agree with the people, not the Port.

- Squandering irreplaceable public resources
This is the Port’s ironically named “Clean Ocean Marina” proposal. Ignoring the future value of water treatment, the Port promotes converting Georgia-Pacific’s immense water treatment facility into a yacht basin. Port staff doctored a consultants review of potential alternative sites to the tune of over $21m to justify their case. They also ignored sites that might have used special state provisions for Contained Aquatic Disposal adopted specifically for this purpose. It is a billion dollar boondoggle. It’s not just about the cost of remediating the lagoon, or the cost of replacing the treatment capacity. It’s also about jobs. Whatcom County used to be a big vegetable producer. When growers learned what the City of Bellingham would charge for treating vegetable wash water, the Jolly Green Giant and other growers simply pulled out. Agricultural production plummeted and hasn’t recovered. The G-P lagoon could be used without further permitting to treat agricultural process water to revive an entire industry and hundreds of jobs.

- Geo-hazards and public infrastructure
The Port’s plan completely ignores known geo-hazards intrinsic to the site. Rising sea levels will obviously affect the site. Estimates of this impact continue to increase, especially with observations that ice shields in Antartica and Greenland are melting more quickly than expected. Recent tsunami projections put the site at at an especially critical location for up to three meter waves that could occur in “big one” earthquake scenarios. The entire site is old school fill, including garbage, rubble and silt. Liquefaction dramatically threatens both private and public investments. The wisdom of this risky approach was never competently compared to a less intensive development scenario. Even though environmental studies require a no—action alternative for comparative review, no competent assessment of the value of an open public waterfront was ever contemplated. Some wonder if doing less might do a lot more, especially with the risk to investment so high. Current modeling predicts “…tsunami waves will reach (Bellingham) about 1.5 hours after the Cascadia earthquake, with inundation depths as high as 18 feet and current velocities in excess of 20 knots. Tsunami inundation is expected to continue for more than 8 hours”.

- Government spending
According to the Interlocal Agreement the City has spent about $20m prior to signing for planning, cleanups, acquisitions and improvements, and will spend another $25m to meet its obligations in the Agreement through 2037. Sales tax directed from a special district will contribute another $25m, and the City will further rely on additional state and federal grants to help offset costs incurred by the City under the Agreement. Meanwhile, the Port, prior to signing, had spent over $32m including $23m for Environmental Insurance through AIG (of TARP bailout fame). The insurance is supposed to pay half of the required cleanup costs while the other half is expected to be funded through the State’s MTCA program for environmental cleanups. AIG is ranked the third worst (least likely to pay a claim) insurance company in the country by the American Association for Justice. Over the years many others have discussed nuances of these and other related issues. You might expect to plow a bit but can get started here.

And then there is Harry’s plan, but first…

See also: Broken roads.

See also:
Liquefaction damage.

Now see (here or link below) what the Committee for Effective Citizen Participation in Government thinks and consider whether your waterfront deserves a new wheel.

Attached Files

About Tip Johnson

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 11, 2008

Comments by Readers

Dick Conoboy

Jan 19, 2019


What is the source of the graphic at the top of the article?  Whose plan does it represent?


Tim Paxton

Jan 19, 2019

For the few who like to see a list of all or most of the known Bellingham Bay toxic waterfront problems try:

Subtle and yet slightly biased. 

The State also allows barges to come up to the center of Bellingham Bay from where ever and dump tons and tons of un-regulated mystery material.  As long as it is under their magic tonnage cap, anything goes.  It all washes up on your beaches.

Bellingham Bay may be one of the biggest sources of toxins killing off Orcas Whales in the San Juans.  The Bellinghgam Bay toxic Cover up going on is pitiful and probably the last nail in the Orcas coffins.  Dead whales, a yet another bonus of our mayor and council inactions and lies.


Tip Johnson

Jan 19, 2019

Good question, Dick.  

I pulled it from my waterfront files but it took some looking to retrieve the source.  I should maybe have given some credit.  I got it from an a 2013 Bellingham Herald article by John Stark, entitled, “Bellingham waterfront could be big and tall if market permits”. It is reportedly one of the “eye-popping renderings” presented to planning commissioners by city staff representing the “maximum legal limit envisioned” in a report by the city and the Port of Bellingham”.

However, I was just using it symbolically to represent overdevelopment.


Dick Conoboy

Jan 21, 2019


Thanks.  There are those I am reading on other sites who would say any development there will be over-development and that it ought to be restored as nearly as possible to its natural state.  The power of money is too much for that to happen I’m afraid, but we can minimize the impact.  Instead we give away the farm to Harcourt and in return we get a miserable little pocket beach and playground with a rusted but sparkley beach ball remnant of the company that poisoned the ground and water.  Let’s not forget WWU is in its planning for the 6 acres it will have at the waterfront.  The latest document I could find on the most recent meeting of the development organization (Western Crossing Development) at WWU can be read here.   Don’t expect to gather any additional data about WWU “Bayside” from the minutes.  That is what  closed sessions are for.

I am now awaiting the plans for the cable car installation to transport  students and profs too and from WWU “Bayside”.   (note:  this is a joke)


Dick Conoboy

Jan 21, 2019

There are planning documents available on the WWU website for the proposed development of 6 acres for the university.  Click here to read about the plans.


Bill McCallum

Jan 21, 2019

Sorry you didn’t include the 1912  photo photo by J. Wilbur Sandison  taken from a hot-air balloon. It shows  most of the area, including water surrounding the railroad tracks because it is tideland. The photo was on the front page of the March 2004 issue of Whatcom Watch.


Tim Paxton

Jan 21, 2019
With the amounts of toxic waste still at the waterfront, I am surprised that City, Port and County officials would stand by and hope they won’t face jail and fines when people start get sick from exposure.  Dioxin.  Mercury.  Hexavalent Chromium.  Cesium 137.  Qbroxin.  And on and on.   If I was a City Official, I would demand a halt immediately.   Alas, our officials are planning on being long gone before the students and condo dwellers start dropping.   (The County Council is the Health Board so they have liability.)

One example below:  Clean Water Act  Knowing Endangerment.  
CWA Knowing Endangerment
A Person
Knowingly Committed Specified Offense (33 U.S.C. 1311, 1312, 1313, 1316, 1317, 1318, 1321(b)(3), 1328, 1345, or permits issued under 1342 or 1344)
Knew at the time that such acts put another person in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury
Statute: 33 U.S.C. 1319(3)
15 years and/or $250,000 ($1,000,000 for corps.); subsequent convictions doubled.

Tip Johnson

Jan 21, 2019

Tim P. - Indeed, officials at LCP Chemicals in Brunswick, Georgia, did go to jail for  making a mess pretty comparable to what G-P did in Belingham!


Tip Johnson

Jan 21, 2019

Bill M. - Sadly, the image is not available online.  But if you know where I can get a copy…??!!
( A watermarked copy is here -

The referenced article by Ralph Thacker is here

And there is more by others here
And here

A good reminder there is plenty of good  reading over at


Dick Conoboy

Jan 21, 2019

Looked at the 1927 photo. Ha!  Maybe the waterfront’s original state is not as great as it is cracked up to be unless you are a mudskipper. 


Konrad Lau

Jan 22, 2019

Current data suggests ice pack densities are neutral at worst. Polar ice caps, while having shrunk in diameter, have increased in depth resulting in a net Zero sum gain in ocean depth.

Were melting ice a current threat (as so often claimed by climate peal-clutchers), ocean levels would have increased to catastrophic levels ten years past.

Instead, we see the on-going subsidence of land adjoining the seas.

Long-term collection of solar data suggests we are currently entering a “grand solar minimum” that will bring about a 1.5 to 2.0 degree (C) average temperature reduction in the Earth’s surface temperature. Models suggest that where it is currently hot and dry, it will get hotter and drier. Where it is cold and wet, it will get much colder and wetter (i.e. snow) leading to Ice Age conditions in areas that currently supplying most of the world’s agricultural products.

Our waterfront development should first focus on real clean up. Then we should prepare for seismic disasters much more likely than either cooling of heating. If we are to seriously discuss floods, we should be looking at tidal waves related to crustal displacement offshore.

Additionally, our State government loves to spend our tax dollars with little or no regard to value. It is not hard to find a sleazy developer willing to accept State funds for shoddy work and then disappear into the night, leaving the tax payer holding the bag.

Call me cynical but we need to keep our focus on reality and bang for the buck.

Good intentions amount to nothing if there is no real benefit.



Tim Paxton

Jan 22, 2019

That artists sketch looks to have typical 20-25 story buildings.  ( I am guessing ALL the condos will be 20-40 stories tall, just like Vancouver.  He is missing about other 20 condo sites I expect.)

Anyone in a Downtown Bellingham existing building can look forward to having lots of their views of the Bay and Lummi / San Juan Islands blocked.  Forever.   

For example.  The Bellingham Towers at 14 floors (140 foot tall) with an elevation of 80 feet puts the top floor at 220 Feet.  A 25 story Condo will be around 250 feet at elevation 10’.  Welcome to the 260+ feet of view blocking coming Condos the way of every property owner down town!   Plus we get to subsidize the fun.  

Imagine the traffic down Holly Street with all those Condos full.  Vibrant! Subdued excitement! 

Time to re-think the whole mess?   A nice 10 year Development time out to make a decent plan and not one for the speculators who are busy bribing everyone in sight.


Konrad Lau

Jan 22, 2019

Shold we be more concerned about “views” than the health of the city?

I can tell you that Vancouver is a concrete wasteland…particularly at night.

Ugly is as ugly does.


Ralph Schwartz

Jan 24, 2019

KL what is your source for that supposed 1.5 to 2 degree C temperature decrease from a grand solar minimum? Scientists who publish peer-reviewed literature agree that this century’s solar minimum could be big, but that means as much as 0.3 degrees of cooling, against a trend line of 1 to 5 degrees of human-caused warming through this century:


And however big the  cooling signal might be, in any case it is temporary. Sea level rise and flooding are a long-term concern, given the net loss of ice over Greenland and Antarctica. It’s not a good idea to toss off false data in one part of your argument because it casts into doubt everything else you say.

While I will make time to correct fake science, I don’t have time for pointless debate. Over and out.

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