Sink, Swim, or Divorce – Options Narrow for our Relationship with Harcourt

Why the Port selected Harcourt to be “master developer” should be an inquiry submitted through bullhorns and accompanied by clacking pitchforks.

Why the Port selected Harcourt to be “master developer” should be an inquiry submitted through bullhorns and accompanied by clacking pitchforks.

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.

Sinking to Their Level

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.”

A True Story:

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.

And Another:

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.

Swimming in Circles

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.

It’s Time to Plan for Divorce

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.

About Alex McLean

Posting Citizen Journalist • Member since Jan 26, 2013

Alex McLean works in the local trades for a living. He served two 3 year terms on the Bellingham Greenways Advisory Committee, and helped craft the Levies that voters of Bellingham [...]

Comments by Readers

Todd Lagestee

Oct 23, 2019

Solid explanation…the only thing left out was the very fact that the COB had a Public Development Authority up until 2014 that was then dissolved by this current Mayor and some current  City Council members (I don’t begrudge them too much, let’s be honest they’re paid a pittance to do a full-time job with half-time resources)...yes, Mayor Pike set up B’ham for success in the Waterfront and Linville and the Port sold us and our future waterfront for a song and a jig from the Irish Leprechaun, looking to add to their pot of gold. The game plan sure looks now to be build what you can on land gotten for cheap, then export the profits offshore and leave the City hanging with all of the long term risk of continuously upgraded sea level rise, king tide  storms surges and under predicted tsunamis. 


Alex McLean

Oct 24, 2019

In theory, construction has to start in May of 2020 and be done and signed off for occupancy by January 2022. These are the Port’s new dates. That is a pretty heroic timeline and will require that Harcourt is going absolutely gangbusters on this project from start to finish with no major delays or mistakes. Just exavating for and pouring  cement for the underground garage will be a huge ordeal. All three buildings will sit above a giant concrete lid capping that huge garage and, wowza, that takes a mess of engineering and rebar to pull off. The added headache of needing to use siesmic piles that will have to be “driven to refusal”—meaning stuffed through the backfilled soil until they jam into bedrock—will be significant.  The pile spikes used in front of the Granary had to be whacked in 50’ deep until they were seated.

I don’t know that Harcourt is going to be happy to hear it, but Councilmember Lilliquist has suggested that the entirety of the insurance headache is actually on their shoulders: Many large insurance firms now outright refuse to insure shoreline and floodplain properties because they are smart, it is their job to understand risk, and they have their noses pinned into every update of climate crisis data that comes out. Oddly enough, given the hubris of our species, these insurance plans are nowadays instead being dumped into Freddie/Mac which is a government-owned corporation, ie: the taxpayer is on the hook, one way or the other, if this is the insurance of last resort.

I confess that I don’t fully know or understand if the height over mean high water mark is adequate right now for projections. What irritates me, however, is this cramped space of a 50’ shoreline setback, where the trail will go, allows for minimal adaptation. It is a similar conundrum to what we now see upstream at the Bus Barn site wherein planners dropped a fence so damn close to the shore, or Whatcom Creek in that case, that not a single thing can be done to improve habitat. And, of course, the City absolutely will be responsible for that trail easement which, obviously, is the first thing that will be impacted by rising seas or looked at as a potential tsunami barrier. 

If Harcourt pooches this effort, I think the City ought to seriously consider shelving this acreage and leaving it as the LAST, rather than the FIRST property to be developed.


Dick Conoboy

Oct 25, 2019

Well, anyhoo….   Some seals cavorting in the water 10 feet above the Granary Building in 2075. 


Alex McLean

Oct 25, 2019

Sea Level Rise
“The Waterfront District infrastructure and development will be constructed to accommodate potential long-term sea level rise and tsunami conditions. Most of the site is currently located at an elevation of 5-7 feet above the Mean High Water Mark. Recent climate change studies have projected sea level to rise 15” to 50” over the next 100 years. Development in the Waterfront District shall be constructed in accordance with the best available science sea level rise information at the time the development occurs.

The site grade for parks, infrastructure and development pads will be raised to levels appropriate for the design lifetime of the projects. Marine-related industrial uses which need water access and buildings or facilities with a low initial cost or short life span may be located close to current sea level elevations and modified over time to adjust to rising sea level. Commercial, residential and institutional uses with a longer building life or more significant investment will be elevated at appropriate levels to reflect projected sea level rise.“ — 2013 Waterfront District Sub-Area Plan

The 2019 IPCC report, which is massively conservative due to the fact that thousands of scientists and all 120 governments need to agree on the final assessment to be published, had a special sub-report — this one signed off on by only 36 nations, 104 authors, and referencing merely 6,891 publications. 

This, according to Wikipedia, was the summary takeaway of that document:

Global mean sea levels (GMSL) rose by 3.66 mm (0.144 in) per year which is “2.5 times faster than the rate from 1900 to 1990”. At the rate of acceleration, it “could reach around 30 cm (12 in) to 60 cm (24 in) by 2100 even if greenhouse gas emissions are sharply reduced and global warming is limited to well below 2°C, but around 60 cm (24 in) to 110 cm (43 in) In their summary of the SROCC, Carbon Briefsaid that rate of rising sea levels is “unprecedented” over the past century. Worst-case projections are higher than thought and a 2 metres (6.6 ft) rise by 2100 “cannot be ruled out” if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase strongly.”

Many institutions and local governments blew their diapers in half after reading this new information — as with all previous IPCC reports, it was increasingly horrifying and nobody nowadays really even pretends like humans will address the climate crisis with anything remotely adequate to the response needed. 

But, as it was likely a Tuesday or Sunday afternoon in 2019 America, Trump probably tweeted something about Jay-Z’s girlfriend and the news cycle pinwheeled back into fairyland distraction ... not unlike our local electeds, of course, who only see these plans, right now, through lenses of their own fantasies of perpetual economic growth. 


Alex McLean

Oct 25, 2019

Current mhwm of the site: 5-7 feet

Potential sea level rise by 2100: 6.6 feet

As Todd Legestee implied above, however, this has to account for king tides and gnarly weather events, such as the ‘perfect’ storm that mangled Birch Bay last year. The actual shelf life for this condo project and trail-spangled shoreline, which, of course, got a waiver to ignore the habitat recommendations and supposedly mandatory setbacks for habitat (100 goddamn feet, not 50, you drooling imbeciles) means they will have Porsches and Mercedes bobbing like corks in that underground garage long before the supposed 81 years of perfect conditions implied by these numbers. 


Tim Paxton

Oct 25, 2019

Nice description of the circus  going on at the waterfront.

Is the City Council personally guaranteeing the safety of housing children atop about the estimated 27,000 tons of dumped mercury?  I am going to guess they will be amongst the first people personally named and  sued along with the tax payers of the City of Bellingham.

City Planning approving housing on this toxic waste site could bankrupt the City of Bellingham based on future likely lawsuits for known hazardous waste.   In addtion, of course, to damaging and destroying lives.    Knowing endangerment?  Misfeasance?  Add to the toxic mercury orgnic compounds: Qbroxin, Penta, Dioxin, Cesium 137 and of course Hexavalent Chromium.    The water front law suits could add thousands to your property tax bills thanks to incompetence by the County Board of Health, Dept of Health, City Council and Executives.  Not to mention worthless DOE and EPA non clean up malfeasance.

I doubt if any future Jury is going to believe the City, County or Port elected officials were ignorant of the toxins despite the “no prospecting” agreement in place.  

Time for a temporary  freeze on development until total Bay clean up is completed and not paid for by tax payers?


Alex McLean

Oct 26, 2019

Thanks Tim,

 I confess that I’m not terribly fluent in the cleanup status or how, exactly, elected officials plan to convert a $1 purchase of 137 acres of toxin-contaminated blech into a winning investment for taxpayers. 

Mostly this ignorance of mine isn’t intentional so much as my brain just gets instantly swamped by the numbers involved: six contaminated sites, $35 million for cleaning the waterway, $44 million for something else gnarly, the ‘Dioxin Beach’ and, apparently, an exquisitely toxic RG Haley site that will add to costs already exorbitant, and an estimated 530,000 cubic yards that need to be removed. All the math makes me sweat through my eyeballs and causes epileptic toenail expulsions just to ponder it. 

Something I thought about elsewhere, however, is perhaps new and/or interesting:

Building underground garages will change the subterranean hydrology of this site and, especially for a project that has a meager 50’ setback from salmon habitat, I’d want to understand where the noxious goo goes when it flows.  Will the French drains and corrugated piping be pointed towards the creek? Will a 1.7 acre hole scarfed 15ish feet below street level create a low-pressure vacuum that will attract water from surrounding underground acres? 

I don’t know. I’m not an engineer. But, yeah, it seems a valid question seeing the huge amount of hydrostatic pressure that can build up, even on level ground, on these types of foundations.


Bill McCallum

Oct 27, 2019


The port commission originally approved the waterfront residential building redevelopment project at the March 6, 2018 meeting. Waterfront District Project Memorandum 7315 (February 23, 2018), signed by Executive Director Rob Fix listed building construction as beginning in August 2018 and building occupancy in October 2019.

At the October 8, 2019 meeting, the port commission approved modification #1 to the waterfront residential building redevelopment project. Waterfront District Project Memorandum 8778 (October 1, 2019), signed by Executive Director Rob Fix listed building construction as beginning on May 1, 2020 and building occupancy beginning in January 2022. A note said that there was no change in the building occupancy date.

Most people see at 27 month difference between October 2019 and January 2022.



Alex McLean

Oct 28, 2019

I suffered through a lot of those documents, too, Bill. As noted above, my brain starts to foam over with confusion when dealing with numbers and I punted to generalizations, instead, lest I start weeping in front of my dogs. 

One thing the Port granted Harcourt that caught my eye was what appeared to be repeated delays in purchasing this condo property. They had a date set when that relatively simple commitment — some cash for real property — needed to be finalized, but Harcourt asked for extensions instead. 

My reading on this is likely unfair: I’m biased and already have cause to think this developer is shady. 

But, that said, it seems easy enough to presume that Harcourt either, A) didn’t have the financial liquidity to even buy some of the hottest acreage on the West Coast at freakishly low rates, or B) they were playing leverage with the Port to demand an extra floor, boost the project from 70 units to 94, and using their tactical advantage as a “partner” in this ménage é trois to get what they wanted. 

I’d like to see a bill of sale, transfer of deed, or something that proves they even paid. I never found it on the Port website and got lazy enough to give up before embarrassing the dogs.

Mostly, as you and I seem to agree, this current dynamic just doesn’t seem to be working or viable. I’m sympathetic that construction projects can be messy, but a PDA, managed by the City and not the Port, seems like a better way to have some control over these projects and provide some much-needed competition among both the ideas for the projects (maybe even some the public likes?) and the developers who build them. 


Bill McCallum

Oct 28, 2019


I went to the Whatcom County Assessor website and found one piece of property owned by Harcourt.

It is Harcourt Development Granary at 1211 Granary Avenue. 2018 improvements are $2,802,946, land value $339,995 and taxable value $3,142,941.

The deed date is 8/16/2016, the Grantor is the Port of Bellingham and sale price is $200,000.




Alex McLean

Oct 28, 2019


Excerpt from agenda Action Item 4 (AI-4) from the April 17, 2018 Port meeting;

“The Port and Harcourt Bellingham, LLC (Harcourt) entered into a Master Development Agreement on May 19, 2015 (MDA) which provides Harcourtwith the exclusive right to develop approximately 19 acres within the Downtown Waterfront. The Port and Harcourt anticipated that development would occur through individual projects rather than a wholesale transfer of the 19 acres to Harcourt. For each project, the MDA requires that Harcourt (or a single purpose entity created by Harcourt) purchase the property within sixty (60) days of the Port’s creation of a legal lot of record and the Port’s approval of Harcourt’s project memorandum.
Pursuant to the MDA, the Port created a legal lot of record for Project 2 and the Port Commission approved Harcourt’s Project 2 project memorandum on March 6, 2018. Therefore Harcourt (or a single purpose entity created by Harcourt) must purchase the real property by May 7, 2018.”

‘Project 2’ is this Wall of Luxury Condos. 

As noted elsewhere, there’s a flotilla of documents like this and, from what I can deduce, some are extensions that give Harcourt more time to buy the land. 

If they don’t yet own it — if the cash is STILL not firmly in the public treasury right now — then I don’t really grock how they are able to have this thing sprinting through permitting.

I guess I’ll have to go to the Port and ask for a bill of sale, get something to confirm and quash my conspiracy theories here.




George Dyson

Oct 29, 2019

Amen,  Alex! When it takes a year and a half of secret negotiations (and over $100 million in taxpayer concessions) under an “exclusive negotiating agreement” to reach a pre-nup, that doesn’t bode well for the marriage—or the divorce. For almost 25 years many of us spent countless hours at a long series of waterfront planning and visioning sessions, and almost all of them opened with statements that “We don’t know what the redevelopment is going to look like, but we can all agree on what it is NOT going to look like: a wall of big-box condos along the water.” What is so tragic is that while communities all over the world are making huge sacrifices to re-assemble fragmented public waterfront why, why, why are we dismantling our irreplaceable public waterfront, cleaned up at enormous (and ever-lasting) public expense, and selling it off piecemeal to a foreign developer at a fire-sale price? (A very large negative price, if you count the enormous infrastructure subsidies and assumed liability costs). Huge mistake. Thought experiment: if G-P / Koch Industries had kept the property, cleaned it up at their *own* expense, and paid for their own infrastructure, would we even *then* accept the current plan?


Lisa E. Papp

Oct 29, 2019

Thank you, Alex, for this thorough article. But what a discouraging debacle! I hope the answer is to Divorce Harcourt. 

What is it about Bellingham? I have this idea that Bellingham is a place of innovation and forward-thinking leadership and sometimes it is.  But often it seems that Bellingham is really a backwater stuck in a quagmire of some people deciding that change can’t happen (moving the Bus Barn, stopping 5G, developing the waterfront in an appropriate and beautiful way).


Dianne Foster

Oct 30, 2019

Thank-you Alex.    You must have PTSD from all this.   And I thought i’d had bad employers  -   nothing like this!    I’m assuming you support the challenging Port candidate,   since he has been clean of this mess.      Maybe you’d like to comment,    but I haven’t voted yet,  as there are opinions on all sides that I’m still reviewing.    Some other friends are also.    This article may send us over…..


Lisa E. Papp

Oct 30, 2019

Is it bad form to hope for Harcourt to have to declare bankruptcy? That would be one way to get a divorce.


Alex McLean

Oct 30, 2019

The synergy I’d observe from the comments offered by George, Dianne and Lisa might be summed up by observing what we all seem to know: Whatever is going on down on the Waterfront isn’t happening the way we hoped it would. 

A lot of this, in my opinion, came about when the public was forcibly extracted from the equation — we used to have a broad level of engagement, on multiple levels and focuses, but it seems to have been atomized and supplanted with a top-down cattle maze of rules and documents that even our own electeds are nowadays barely able to navigate. 

The Port of Bellingham, in my view, was always the wrong agency to hand over this project to. I’m perpetually baffled that an institution that has a slavish devotion to commerce, cash, and capitalism somehow ended up with the job of urban planning for the largest and most important redevelopment project in our city’s history.

Building heights, view corridors, environmental design standards, setbacks, toxic cleanups, habitat considerations, low income housing, stormwater mitigation, green jobs ... none of this shit matters to a Port Authority. Their bailiwick is just to chase money and investors, keep commerce and ‘growth’ thumping, and so it shouldn’t be confusing to observe that much of what the rabble in this extremely informed and engaged progressive community wants is, in fact, a constant battle against the Port’s driving core philosophies.

Although not heavily represented in my article, my particular fixation has always been with the so-called “green building standards” of the Waterfront District. The fact that I had to fight and claw to try to get a local architect hired to improve the (goddawful) aesthetics and, just maybe, some solar panels put on the roofs of these condos illustrated to me that leadership around here had sufficiently lobotomized the decades-long dialogues we’d been having to get a built-green district that reflected the desires of our community.

Bolstering the Port to five commissioners might help. Tweaking the ‘Development Regulations’ could make projects better, greener, more sustainable. Harcourt bailing out due to bankruptcy could change things a bit  

But, ultimately, this whole deal seems really upside down and — as ramming condos 50’ from the shoreline might indicate — totally devoid of the holistic and long-term vision that urban planning models (such as my favorite, Landscape Urbanism) would suggest as a smart first investment and design commitment. 

Instead of a disciplined vision and pathways to strategic outcomes, we are going to see a mess of random ideas, including bad ones, inflicted from on-high: The hope, apparently, is we’ll get exhausted with piecemeal fights and quit caring.

To a large degree that has already happened and I only wrote this trundling turd of a treatise because I wanted to post a marker, somewhere, before the next generation took their snorkels and flippers off to ask why we decided to install a Wall of Luxury Condos in that idiotic location.


Bryce Read

Oct 31, 2019

Alex brings up some interesting points in this article, but to level all blame on Harcourt and the Port and completely ignore the City’s responsibility is omitting a critical aspect of reporting the facts on this issue.

A last minute decision by the City to combine the shoreline permits of the road and the Waypoint park into one permit/process reset the permitting clock with the state and this caused- or was allowed to cause- an additional year delay. This combined with the City and it’s contractor making little or no observable progress on the jobsite for weeks at a time during construction further delayed what should have been a straightforward street and utilities project.

Also, three years to permit and build a narrow (undersized?), flat, 2 lane, 1/2mile road and utilities with one right angle turn was ridiculous- and in the private sector- would be unacceptable. Two years of permitting and one year of actual construction. The real and theoretical tenants/customers of the Granary could not access the building without this road and its requisite water, sewer, power, and parking until this road and physical access was addressed. For some comparison, the 1 mile 4 lane stretch of Cordata Parkway, with utilities, sidewalks, street trees, landscaped medians, grade changes and several curves took less than half the time to build- 30 years ago! (I know, I was friends with the contractor who built it at the time.)

On the subject of Master Developer selection, Alex mentions several other options were presented- do we the public know what/who they were? It’s perhaps telling about the regulatory reputation of this community that we would have to go halfway around the world to find a developer for this property when it is located midway between two of the hottest commercial real estate markets on the planet- Seattle and Vancouver. I personally know at least four qualified, experienced individuals/organizations that began here in Bellingham and have since successfully pursued national and international projects and none of them were interested in working in their own back yard again. Food for thought.


Alex McLean

Nov 01, 2019

From the 2013 WD Master Plan, page 17:

”The SMP (Shoreline Master Program) also includes a Waterfront District Development Regulation Matrix with minimum and maximum shoreline setbacks, buffers and height regulations for each shoreline use area. The SMP provides that:

The maximum setbacks and buffers within the Waterfront District shoreline mixed-use sub-area may be reduced down to the minimum setbacks and buffers (both as specified in BMC 22.11.30 F) as conditioned upon the adoption of a Comprehensive Plan amendment for a Waterfront District Master Plan and Development Agreement for the entire Waterfront District Special Development Area or, upon the adoption of a master plan for a portion of land area within the Waterfront District.”

I think, but don’t actually know, that there was logistically a lot of headaches involved with increasing the height of the buildings (done) and forcing intrusion into the shoreline setbacks (also done) where the State has an established environmental and, now, economic interest in NOT developing and hardening shorelines. The ‘orca and salmon legislation’ I referenced in my article was pretty specific about this and — again, totally as conjecture — I’d hazard that there was a lot of bizarre legal acrobatics, which take time, involved to get this bad idea to get final permitting approval. 

My baseline understanding of codes and permit processes rests on the mantra that you can always exceed State or Universal Building Code standards (you can increase habitat buffers or add extra insulation to walls, for example) but applying for variances to lessen those standards is intentionally made a pain in the arse. 

I don’t know much about the road or its permitting or delays. We taxpayers paid something like $8 million for it. As a hippie I’m really happy with the Green Streets template used, the dedicated bike lanes, the thoughtful design. I recall that there was a lot of debate about adding an extra pipe for the District Heating aspect; it cost the public, needed to be installed now rather than rip up the street later, but the City wrestled with whether it was a subsidy worth committing to for the sake of providing energy efficiency and cost savings to a development endeavor that they, already, are deeply in the fiscal red zone on. 

Generally speaking, I don’t buy a lot of the sniveling over ‘too much regulations!’ here in Bellingham. I’m happy to agree that some local codes are absurd and counterintuitive and might cite fire codes, which require that the biggest ladder truck the Fire Department owns be able to do donuts in every parking lot in town (a huge waste of asphalt and real estate: just buy a smaller truck already!) but the plus side is that we should, in theory, get a level playing field and predictable results; nobody is special; nobody gets to break the rules; if it is “easier” to build in Arizona then, yes, go ahead and build flophouse tenements down there. 

I was PM on a $7 million project in Fairhaven a dozen years ago and, due to the overlay of the Historic District, it was a pretty gnarly endeavor. But, ultimately, everyone made money and the building fit right in with the goals and expectations of the neighborhood, regulators, and community at large. The onerous rules served a purpose. The building will last for generations. It looks great.

Even though my article is clearly biased against how this particular ‘partnership’ is working out, I’m a bit loathe to impale the City for at least getting its projects done with some modicum of thoughtful design and concern for the future. 

With that said, however, they might do well to realize that another paragraph on the next page of the Master Plan notes that: “ Marine-related industrial uses which need water access and buildings or facilities with a low initial cost or short life span may be located close to current sea level elevations and modified over time to adjust to rising sea level. Commercial, residential and institutional uses with a longer building life or more significant investment will be elevated at appropriate levels to reflect projected sea level rise.“

If these buildings are going to be jacked five feet above the road in 30 or 50 years, then the design of the streets and the eradication of options for an adaptive shoreline (space that isn’t cramped with a Wall of Luxury Condos in the way and ladders leading up to the sidewalk entries) means the short-term profit motive is violently at odds with the long-term survival and design imperatives that some of us think are equally important. 

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