First, we’ll want to peer inside the Granary Building and ponder the spectacle of the world’s loneliest yoga studio ensconced within the world’s emptiest building. Then we’d want to recall that, after a tempest of public protest, the Granary was spared from demolition by the Port of Bellingham, back in 2015, then promptly sold to an Irish developer, Harcourt International, aka, Harcourt Bellingham, LLC.
The 57,000 square-foot building was sold for a mere $200,000. The leasable space, according to the current broker listing, is about 37,625 square feet. If fully leased at the lowest rate of $25 per-square-foot, it would bring in a bit less than $1 million annually to Harcourt. The highest lease rate, $50 per-square-foot, would double that.
That yoga studio is fantastic. I know it is since I helped build it. But, more than three years since the remodel began, the completion of the rest of the building seems to have trundled into yet another mysterious hibernation phase; there’s nothing going on. With potentially millions of dollars rotting in front of their eyes annually, Harcourt still seems torpid and dazed here in Bellingham.
Why the Port selected Harcourt to be the Waterfront District’s “master developer,” over eight other viable alternatives, should be an inquiry submitted through bullhorns and accompanied by clacking pitchforks. The track record for the company, after all, is punctuated by them screwing over their partners through shady lawsuits and claims then, miraculously, vaporizing without building anything. The way they do this is through leveraging an endless series of promises and demands until, at some point, they have a set of drawings that they can claim to be “vested” in. If the other partners – in our case the Port and the City of Bellingham – find themselves exhausted and distraught by the lack of progress, Harcourt will then bind them up with a spiderweb of legal documents and agreements that those gullible “partners” flew right into.
I’ll do this in real-time now:
“Sullivan Square Developer Sues ‘Bullying’ Ireland Company” – Las Vegas Review Journal, 2008
“Harcourt Sued in USA over $800m Scheme”—Jersey Evening Post, 2008
“Titanic Quarter Developer Harcourt Sues over Flats” – BBC, 2010
“REVEALED: Liverpool Stanley Dock Hotel Development Funded by Alleged Tax Avoidance Scheme”—Liverpool Echo, 2014
“Court Blocks Harcourt’s €114m Jersey Legal Battle after Appeal Deadline Missed”—Independent, IE, 2017
“The Developer Behind Titanic Belfast is fighting an ‘Improper’ Move to Wind the Company up” – FORA, 2018
There – that took me a half hour of Google sleuthing through headlines to reveal a company that pinballs between lawsuits and bankruptcy with only slightly less frequency than the Trump Corporation. My brief digital dervish, however, is likely more due-diligence than the Port or City ever bothered with, as evidenced by the feverish praise and support they have always heaped upon these shysters.
A deeper dive into Harcourt’s corporate history reveals that the company only blasted into prominence by being the beneficiaries of a prior scandal. Their much-celebrated success in the Titanic Quarter, in Belfast, Ireland, was due to the local Port authority there creating such a fraudulent and corrupt land scheme, through prior shenanigans with prior partners, that Harcourt was able to swoop in and recraft a deal at bailout rates. A further assistance to the success, as the Titanic Quarter’s own promotions are happy to confess, is that Ireland is a notorious international tax shelter. “Investors in Titanic Quarter also benefit from the UK’s pro-business regulatory framework and one of Europe’s lowest corporation tax levels,” claims their website.
With this in mind, it should be noted that more elusive Irish reporting could be closest to the truth of what Harcourt truly is. They appear to be, in themselves, little more than a dead-broke paper and tax scheme that finagles a portfolio of legal-ish properties they sell to investors. They are a file cabinet, not a company, that was recently re-organized and tucked away on the remote sea-blasted rock of the Isle of Mann, a place that nobody would even know existed were it not already famous for its other deliciously dangerous enterprise of hosting 200 mph motorcycle races through its idyllic streets.
This move of theirs will never be clearly understood, but the Irish Times has attempted it occasionally through headlines like, “Harcourt goes offshore ahead of NAMA exit” (Fri, Feb 20, 2015) in which the author describes the owner, Pat Doherty, of executing a “Byzantine offshore corporate restructuring.”
The term NAMA in that headline becomes important to comprehend since it, also, is a layered suckhole of shady finances. According to the National Asset Management Agency’s website, “(NAMA) was established in 2009 as one of a number of initiatives taken by the Government to address the serious crisis in Irish banking which had become increasingly evident over the course of 2008 and early 2009.” When Harcourt found itself deeply and desperately bankrupt, to the supposed tune of at least $650 million euros, a national bailout fund was created for them and other large-scale property developers in order to survive the global real estate crash. A few years ago, Harcourt was finally able to free itself from NAMA, but not before selling off chunks of itself to what the Irish press describe as “vulture funds” that buy properties in bulk to squirrel away in their own portfolios and tax shelters.
What we might take away from this tortured history is that Harcourt, far from being a “master developer,” is really just a trade broker of land deeds and architectural drawings. They have mastered a facade of whack-a-mole finances, through being perpetually bankrupt or in court, and figured out that the best business model for them is to get others to dump their real cash into the sweat and sawdust of building stuff or, better yet, just suing their “partners” once they’ve gotten vested with plans and property deeds and enough fancy-looking legal documents to choke a whale.
Let’s go back, now, to the Granary Building and review how well the Port and the City’s “partnership” with Harcourt is working out for us.
As the very first Bellingham-based employee of Harcourt’s, I assume readers here will grant me some expertise in my assessments. Aside from my couple of decades experience in the trades, I was also a full-time project manager of roughly $20 million-worth of large and small-scale construction projects, mostly here in Whatcom County. My tenure at the Granary lasted about a year and, with occasional spasms of mandatory mental health vacations, I nonetheless can say that I survived the longest of any employee during that span.
I’ll start by saying this much, I have never seen a bigger clusterfuck than what I witnessed at the Granary. It was, and likely remains, total chaos and anarchy on that jobsite.
During my year-ish employment, I saw about two dozen fully grown men vaporize from that jobsite in a cloud of screeching tires, curses, and upraised middle fingers. When I claim I “survived the longest,” please be clear in understanding that is only true because 100 percent of the other employees had already quit in total rage and disgust at how the jobsite was being managed.
I’d likely want to worry about libel and slander at this point, but I have zero fears. Aside from the ten phone numbers I collected from other maligned and screwed-over employees – other construction grunts, like myself, just looking for a decent job run by decent people – there is also a separate and more exotic list that I know would testify likewise. Rather than us tobacco spewing tool apes, these are the pedigreed and white-shirted professionals who, by necessity of a large-scale project, were also retained long enough to experience Harcourt’s degeneracy: the architects, engineers, real-estate brokers, local subcontractors, and construction materials wholesalers. These
are not people who air grievances publicly. But they for damn sure know when they are getting screwed over, being asked to do illegal things, or going unpaid for a year. They talk to each other, just like the lower ranks do, and the word is out on the skeezy and hornswoggling tactics of Harcourt Bellingham, LLC.
Then, of course, there is the letter I got in the mail shortly after I quit two years ago.
I never even knew there was such a thing as the Washington State Human Rights Commission, but the letter was from them. They wanted to interview me to get my opinion of the project manager on Harcourt’s jobsite—a French-Irish meatsock of a man the company apparently exported to come play golf with local officials. They wanted to understand his treatment of two African-American men who had briefly filled the roles of some of his perpetually quitting employees.
Much to my shame, and perhaps due to still being embalmed in some wavelength of shock and relief from freeing myself from that mess, I didn’t respond to the letter for months. But, when I finally did, I told them unequivocally that the project manager we’d worked for was by far the most belligerent, racist, homophobic, unhinged and tyrannical sociopath I’d ever worked for. “I remember these two guys, yes, and he was a total galloping asshole to them and to everybody else who worked there,” is roughly what I told the Commission. “I can’t testify that I directly heard him say anything racist or discriminatory to their faces, but I’ve little doubt it happened if that is what their claim is.”
In August of 2016, we almost lost the Granary. Some sparks from a disc grinder snuggled behind a concrete wall and set the wood tower on fire. All hands rallied whatever fire extinguishers existed, the rusty leftovers from Georgia Pacific’s prior ownership of the building, and we emptied them into the smoke while we smashed a concrete wall out for access to the flames. Then we dumped a job-site water truck onto the fire by yanking hoses through the windows. Then the fire department came and dumped a few hydrants of foaming suppressant into the mess. It went out, finally. If it hadn’t, in a concrete-shelled building filled with wood timber framing, we could have become cinders of hot ejecta billowing from the world’s largest chimney.
I only mention this because, after that day, every single fire extinguisher we used sat empty at the entrance of the building…for months. The project manager from Harcourt left them there, apparently, as morbid wind chimes to ring in our doom should another incident occurred.
I never once saw an inspector on site, or engineering drawings, or architectural plans. For the first few months we were paid cash – a clear indication that Harcourt International hadn’t bothered to get bonded and licensed, let alone deal with the fussiness of complying with Labor and Industries (L & I) rules, OSHA, or local and state tax codes. These are the people we’ve entrusted as the “master developer” of our Waterfront District.
Buried deep in a City of Bellingham Parks and Recreation Committee Meeting, from the afternoon of October 9, 2017, is a pretty damning affirmation that Harcourt can’t even do the small things right.
It was around this time when Harcourt decided they wanted to bid on the construction of nearby Waypoint Park. Their thought, apparently, was things were going so swimmingly well at the Granary that, sure, they could take on another project.
They submitted a bid of just over $2 million to build the park and…they won! They were the lowest bidder and the City, therefore, was required to take them seriously. In so doing, the City also had to look at their paperwork after a competing bidder noticed they were, quite flagrantly, out of compliance and not even eligible to bid. Indeed, it was right there in what they had submitted. A letter from the City to Harcourt pointed out, “On the Mandatory Bidder Responsibility Checklist, Harcourt checked the box indicating that its certification with L & I is active,” the City wrote. “However, Harcourt’s bid submittal includes a printout from L & I’s website indicating that Harcourt’s registration is
‘Suspended’ and ‘Does not meet L & I licensing requirements.’”
Harcourt should have left it alone and walked away chagrinned at their obvious goof. Instead, despite the City’s initial rejection, noting specifically that “we checked” and “we verified” Harcourt’s suspension, Harcourt persisted and claimed that it was L & I’s screwup, not theirs.
It took a week, but the City dug into it and firmly said “no” again. In fact, it was not just a wee suspension or late payment for the bond, they discovered, but five solid months of illegally operating as a general contractor.
“L & I’s records, enclosed herewith, show that Harcourt’s license was suspended on April 21, 2017, due to the cancellation of its contractor’s bond and was not reinstated until September 22, 2017,” the City retorted. “Therefore Harcourt was not responsible at the time of bid opening on September 20, 2017 and is ineligible for award.”
The audacity of getting caught, then paying for the bond five months and two critical days late, then complaining they should still get the winning bid is…very impressive. Running an absurdly dangerous job site uninsured for five months is…another adjective altogether.
I could catalogue other tales of sadness and debauchery from our local Master Developer, but there isn’t much point and nobody seems to care. We picked a scumbag company, yes, but we also have feckless leaders who are happy enough with the abusive marriage – the shotgun wedding – that has been inflicted upon unwitting taxpayers or, in my case, unwary construction goons.
This was really evident by Port Director Rob Fix’s laconic and lifeless Bellingham City Club performance earlier this summer. During his talk and slide show, Fix trotted through a list of predictable brag markers, then answered questions from what appeared to be a hostile and pugnacious audience. His tone never changed throughout. He had the veneer of a man who, pretty clearly, had long ago stopped giving a shit about public opinion.
To a question regarding the absurdly low price of the Granary sale, Fix blandly admitted that they just decided to knock a half million off it. Sorry, local taxpayers, but that revenue went to Ireland instead.
To my question about who would pay for the cost of protecting against sea level rise, especially at the acreage the Port just sold to Harcourt a mere 50 feet from the shoreline, Fix shrugged and said it was the City of Bellingham’s problem.
One person asked about some frisky reporting they’d seen in the Cascadia Weekly and Fix thought nothing of calling it all gibberish and lies – he didn’t outright say “fake news,” but the snorts of derision from the audience indicated he might as well have.
And, for the sake of fairness, we should not bother to single out the Port too much here. The City of Bellingham, and especially Mayor Linville, have been equally duplicitous in this goatshow. Far from being anything resembling “partners,” the largest government in town, with the most taxpayer cash at stake, has reacted to the Waterfront District development as though it were some incomprehensible fiefdom in Zimbabwe, something remote and untouchable, that they have no control or jurisdiction over. When something is contentious or curious, the City says it is the Port’s problem or decision. Ask the Port, and they say to check with the City. When something is fully infested with prancing idiocy, such as building a Wall of Luxury Condos directly atop Whatcom Creek’s estuary, both sides will punt and say, “It’s what the Developer wanted.”
The public, in this way, has been ping-ponged right off the playing table. That Wall of Luxury Condos is emphatically stupid to set in motion as the very first new development installed in the Waterfront District because it seals off views for the remaining acres and instantly depletes their value. It was sold to Harcourt, by unanimous consent of the port commissioners, for the piddling price of $21.22 per-square-foot. It forecloses on any Shoreline Management Program changes that might be made, any state orca or salmon legislation, or on any climate adaptation options we might – perhaps desperately and soon – need to consider. Waypoint Park is lauded beyond its tiny size, winning two awards for design and shoreline restoration; unfortunately, it will never have the prospect of expansion with this $32 million bollard of condos in the way. And, yes, the layout is diametrically opposite of what the public had hoped for, ten years ago, before these plans were rammed through as ‘Option A’ or ‘Option B.’ Both bad layouts had the same rich sparkle ponies hovering over the public trail, tending their lobster tails and wine on their balconies, while plebe citizens admire a heavily subsidized ribbon of concrete meandering through a treeless expanse of beauty bark and low shrubs, our “habitat zone,” that will maximize views and comfort for some while, for the next 1,000 years, diminishing it for all others.
For some deranged reason, even the much-ballyhooed “Acid Ball” relic is impacted here. Where other cities now actively work to protect and restore their iconic shorelines, Bellingham is going to slam condos right next to the giant rusty orb they just paid $430,000 to relocate and to slather with an exotic lacquer of whitish snot. It will be a glorious photo-op for tourists to denote our slavish fealty to enriching the leprechauns who now, to paraphrase observations from the Cascadia Weekly’s Tim Johnson, own not only the rainbow but also the pot of mercury-tainted gold beneath. Seriously? You guys couldn’t figure out a way to not park a five-story building atop this thing? A 30-foot-tall, billion-ton, iron sphere somehow wasn’t, uh…noticed?
Harcourt submitted the condo plans to the planning department a few weeks ago. They will sail through the permitting process. Nothing this side of a tsunami will push this bad idea aside.
(I say that with some confidence: The seven members of City Council, the mayor, and the dutiful silence of all five School Board Directors resulted in precisely nothing whatsoever being done to stop or slow the magnificently more malignant ‘Bus Barn’ project from being rebuilt upstream. We’ll have 70 diesel school buses parked atop Whatcom Creek forever now, Critical Areas Ordinance be-damned. Habitat and climate change considerations – to say nothing of the affordable housing we might have wanted on either of these sites – seem to not overly concern the sorts elected here in Bellingham.)
Perhaps, however, I’m missing a lot of my own point.
Harcourt is actively living up to their record of failure, after all, and cannot even seem to get the Granary Building finished, let alone get it leased and occupied. They are on their third Lead Broker now, a plum local job that nonetheless seems to be trending with their other employee retention rates. The Bellingham Herald offered the free and glowing PR of front-page spreads declaring new restaurants that were supposed to open in June. But, when I called the proprietors of Good to Go Pies this week, they said – surprise, surprise – that they were waiting for the developer to get back from planet Xenon, or wherever, to finish the work. Harcourt is charging the exorbitant rate of $25-$50 per square-foot/year on the “triple net” system. I don’t know what that even means, honestly, but my realtor friends say we should expect that gigantic building, which, again, they acquired for a mere $200,000, to remain a ghost ship on our waterfront for a long, long, time. At this rate the Granary will soon be back to the way I found it, in June, 2016: empty, creepy, and occupied only by dust and fermenting pigeon feculence.
So, all-in-all, I don’t even know what I’m sniveling about here. Harcourt is likely broke and, in any case, there seems no prospect they would even be able to complete the three, five-story towers built upon 1.7 acres of what will be some combination of an underground and/or underwater parking garage, in anything near the contracted completion date of 2022. Instead, of course, they will just sue the City and Port and claim that onerous contractual demands – which have actually come in the form of both our local governments repeatedly caving and mewling at their feet with concessions and allowed delays – somehow, miraculously, made it impossible for them to profit. It’s how they roll. This is their dealio, the thing they do best.
A far better and more flexible option for the Waterfront District would be to use the Public Development Authority, or PDA, template for soliciting projects and suitors who want to build on our shores. Dan Pike, Bellingham’s former mayor, preferred this option. With a PDA we could, in theory, finagle design competitions or building types (such as low income housing) that fit our changing needs for where and in what order we want to build projects, rather than relying on the whimsical desires of a remote Irish overlord.
On October 7th the City Council began review of the amendments submitted for the new Sub Area Plan for the Waterfront District. They haven’t touched much in here since 2013 and, according to council member Michael Lilliquist, approval should traipse through relatively unmolested in a matter of weeks. That, to me, is a real pity. The green building standards are laughably weak in the so-called “Development Regulations” chapter and, despite being reprimanded for doing so, there is nothing whatsoever in those documents that merits the continued branding and logo infringement of claiming the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, standards can or will apply. So much for all the hype of the Climate Action Taskforce. These weak rules, unless they are strengthened, will carry through to whatever property is sold to Harcourt, whatever construction is done on the waterfront.
At that same October 7th meeting, Tara Sundin, the Community and Economic Development Manager for the City of Bellingham, explained “vesting” a bit more thoroughly. “This Development Agreement is primarily a vesting tool, agreed upon by the City and the Port, that runs with the land,” Sundin said. “So anybody that the Port sells property to becomes party to this agreement. Vesting is a tool that the state allows…it means City Council can’t change the rules on the landowner without agreement between the parties.” What this means, practically speaking, is that the rapacious capitalism that motivates both Harcourt and the development-cuddly Port has massive leverage to force the City to adhere to weak environmental or design regulations. It also means that Harcourt can, and very likely will, sue for breach of contract if they don’t get their way. If the City ever tries to change something, Harcourt can effectively veto by oiling up an attorney and sliding it under their door.
On October 16, the Bellingham Herald published an article entitled, “Start of Construction for big Waterfront Residential Project is Delayed.” Nobody who has read this
far should be surprised by the predictable headline. Nor should they be surprised that the Port griped at Harcourt’s sloth and ineptitude for a few minutes, but then winsomely granted them an extension on the start date for construction. But they only did this, of course, after they had already granted the allowance for the buildings to go from 70 units to 94 units. The allowance for the building height variances, undoubtedly, will quickly follow.
If they are built at all, the City will need to rip through permitting. The oversight of building code inspections will be artificially pressurized by the “partnership” and tight completion date contracts, and these things will get rammed home with expedited Shoreline reviews and doting acquiescence to the unquestionable – nay, mandatory! – public good of providing us all with a spiffy Wall of Luxury Condos installed atop the critical salmon habitat of Whatcom Creek’s estuary. (Luckily for us, local governments around here now read the all-powerful “Time Immemorial” incantation before their meetings. It acts as a purifying, magical, suppository we insert to anaesthetize ourselves against whatever feelings of guilt or discomfort might come from mangling our local ecosystems while, of course, still making rich white people richer.)
I asked Port Commissioner Michael Shepard what he knew of the whereabouts of the world’s most charming project manager. He said he wasn’t sure what his current status was.
Finally, the Port of Bellingham has had a dervish of posts on social media this month advertising for both a “Disaster Preparedness & Business Continuity Planning Workshop,” on Nov. 4th, and a recently held earthquake preparedness seminar called “Shake Out, Don’t Freak Out!” It looked like much of the information for the latter was dated on 2016 templates and, I’ll assume, there was no mention of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest horrifying assessment for sea level rise. But, in any case, it is good the Port is getting fluent about natural disasters since the recent modeling for tidal waves puts most of their Waterfront District scheme underwater.
Whether it is the timeline or the finances—or just more lethargy from Harcourt—it seems very likely that their own handcrafted and man-made disaster is headed that way, too.