Waterfront Development Bonus Yet Another Bad Idea

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The proposed waterfront development standards provide developers with an option for an increased density bonus, known as the Floor Area Development Bonus, and on Monday afternoon, the Bellingham City Council Committee of the Whole will discuss the fee schedule proposed by staff (and that is a whole other issue). Under this provision, a waterfront developer who agrees to pay into the Lake Whatcom land acquisition program is entitled to increase the amount of waterfront development otherwise permitted.

Now, I am a big fan of the Lake Whatcom acquistion program. I think it is one of the best things the city does. However, the point of these types of transfer of development rights programs is to reduce growth in a sensitive area (or to purchase property to protect sensitive areas, as the case here), and to permit additional growth in a less sensitive area. And herein lies the problem… the Bellingham Bay shoreline is not a less sensitive area, and it is not an appropriate receiving site for increased development.

The waterfront is a Shoreline Of Statewide Significance (SSWS) under the Shoreline Management Act, entitled to the highest level of environmental protection. It is an area that contains endangered, threatened and vulnerable species and habitat under the Endangered Species Act and Washington state guidelines. It is home to protected fish, birds and marine mammals and to orca pods J,K and L. The bay is a site of increased biodiversity because it is fed by a number of freshwater streams, creating several estuarine areas. It is an important part of the Pacific Flyway, providing habitat to migrating shorebirds. It is likely that Bellingham Bay will shortly be designated as protected habitat for rockfish under a NOAA proposal.

Therefore, it is concerning that city and port staff remain defiantly unconcerned with protection of habitat critical areas and SSWS. It is simply not appropriate to attempt to fix Lake Whatcom at the expense of Bellingham Bay. As an alternative, I suggest the city remove all of its proposed waterfront subsidies to private developers, including infrastructure development, and use that money on the Lake Whatcom acquisition program. Developers will continue to build where they see profit, with or without the use of publicly funded incentives.

This proposal underscores several important points about the waterfront plan generally. First, a sensitive shoreline is not an appropriate location for an urban village, and building along the shoreline is contrary to state recommendations for restoring Puget Sound. Washington state's Aquatic Habitat Guidelines recommend protecting sensitive marine shorelines and estuarine areas by avoiding any development at these locations. Overwater marine structures are established by science to be among the most harmful forms of development for the aquatic ecosystem. While the waterfront development is not outright prohibited, it is certainly contrary to the goals of the SMP and CAO. And if development is going to be sited along the shoreline, then it is crucial to have a valid comprehensive conservation strategy to protect biodiversity and habitat. Instead, the city has failed to include plant and animal impacts in its EIS review, and offers a makeshift staff assessment after the waterfront plan is enacted, when it holds limited value.

So if you plan to address the City Council or the port commission, add the Floor Area Development Bonus proposal to your talking points. If the council and the commission insist on enacting the waterfront plan this week, they should remove this TDR provision so the ecological harm caused by waterfront development is minimized. Although the bonus density is small, it is the cumulative impact of the totality of such bonuses that, over time, result in the greatest ecological damage.

About Wendy Harris

Citizen Journalist • Member since Mar 31, 2008

Comments by Readers

Alex McLean

Dec 01, 2013

As one of the council members said, on the related topic of the tax kickbacks that this deal provides for developers, we appear to be “robbing Peter to pay Paul” with a lot of the shell games played on this waterfront plan.

The developers will automatically get to move in without paying the same tax burdens as the rest of us do—such as park impact fees or contributing to our local street and infrastructure funds—but, on top of that, they can increase their floor-area ratio (or FAR) by lobbing cash toward our watershed’s property acquisition program.

Here are the other ways that developers get to build bigger, taller, buildings on our waterfront through these bonus incentives.

1) Build green.
There are FAR bonuses to encourage green building. I generally don’t have a problem with this since a LEED-certified building will be more efficient, create less waste, be a healthier place for workers or residents to spend their days, and, overall, sets a higher bar for design and longevity of our architecture. LEED is an improvement over the current code established here in Bellingham, for sure.

Giving bonuses for the lowest level of LEED, the “Silver” benchmark, is not much of a challenge, however. Most any builder can suss out how to buy different paint and carpet, how to spend a dram more on insulation or windows, and it is not the sort of hurdle that deserves the boost in salable, highly profitable, waterfront property. Some council members have noted this, but their concerns died in committee.

My two biggest gripes with the green building bonus incentive is that it should have been baked into the boilerplate of this district from the very start. The Port and the Council had that opportunity, by mandating and enforcing the LEED Neighborhood Development certification standard early on, but they blanched at attempting anything whatsoever which might spook developers. They wanted no hindrances, no icky stipulations, tacked onto the building code for the district. They opted for the squishy way out which, again, means that all other developers in this town, including any who hope to do something in the downtown core, will be competing with the bargains and bonuses lobbed at these waterfront builders. It was a decision made when the economy was in the toilet, made in panic and haste, and it reflects a lack of spine and inspiration coming from our leaders who, still, will happily gush about the vaunted “Triple Bottom Line” of environmental stewardship, economic prosperity, and social responsibility that this project is supposed to stand upon.

My other gripe is that there is a fairly massive loophole kicked into the side of this build green FAR bonus. After every word that mentions LEED, there are two word that say “or equivalent.”

Not all green building programs are the same, however, no matter how vigorously the competing systems might wish you to think so.

The Building Industry Association has it’s “Built Green” program, and it should be commended for taking the not-so-daring plunge into trying to pry away the control and clout of LEED in this growing market. But the first several tiers of that program have no third-party verification whatsoever. Building green on the honor system, it seems to me, is a lot different than being forced to show that you have rigorously complied with meeting the objectives laid out, and checked, through the LEED commissioning process.

The BIA is evolving, grudgingly moving into the 20th century, but there is no denying that they have used massive amounts of money and lobbying power to install elected judges who, they know, will actively oppose environmental regulations imposed upon their industry. Since it will only take a handful of people, perhaps one Planning Director, to sign off on what is determined to meet the “or equivalent” standard for green building in this waterfront district, I feel the potential for graft and shenanigans—to say nothing of simply ripping off taxpayers as this standard gets perverted—is fairly high without some tighter language installed in this sub-area plan.

2) Public Open Space bonuses

This appears to be the City’s response to providing such winsome and pathetic buffers along the waterfront portions of this plan. What it says, in essence, is that if the developer provides a place accessible and useable to the public, they get to match every square foot of that “gift” by building and equally larger, taller, building. I predict that what we will see is every niggling architectural alcove and planting strip will attempt to earn credits for this. I also predict builders will submit plans that ram projects within a millimeter of their lot lines then negotiate backwards to show how benevolent they are for, as possible examples, providing us with an inviting staircase with benches for their building entrances or, perhaps, an outdoor seating area for the restaurants that will undoubtedly grace their ground floors.

Although the language of this bonus appears to have changed a bit to add the stipulation that these spaces must be accessible during “standard park hours,” there seems to be no assurance that these plazas will not become gated vehicles for private profit the minute the sun sets. There is also no language that states, emphatically, that these spaces need to be outdoors. An enclosed mall, with some cheery seating knooks and a few potted plants, might thus wriggle in to define itself as “Public Open Space.”

I believe that our planners and leaders eagerly hope that these open space bonuses will make the 50-foot “park” along the Whatcom Creek waterway more appealing and less claustrophobic as plazas and courtyards lead gracefully up from the feeble green buffers. All it will take, however, is one developer to ignore this hand-out and we will have an unsightly bottleneck—a building rammed right to the edge of the trail—where we could have simply mandated bigger buffers, better public space, from the beginning.

I’ve said this before elsewhere, but if a member of the public wants to see the model that this is based on they should visit the Port’s development at Squalicum Harbor. That is what we will get. That is the standard, to our leaders way of thinking, which will be good enough for our Waterfront District and good enough to secure the future of high-end jobs (Google, do you like our “nature bandaid” that we provided for you?) and tourism and public delight that they claim will flood into this blank slate of developable land. 

3) Kickbacks for paying into Lake Whatcom land acquisition

Wendy has covered this one well, as usual, but I want add that there is something queer about this bonus that does not compute well in my mind.

A builder, using this FAR bonus, can automatically build the crappiest possible building—one that meets code and does nothing else—and still buy in to attain the same bonuses as his neighbors who attempt to attain LEED (or equivalent) in their efforts to build green. There is no direct benefit to our future waterfront, therefore, and, given the alternatives of either really thinking about how to build an excellent building or simply yanking a blueprint off the shelf and rolling a wad of cash in it ... well, I think that pair of the dice comes up snake-eyes every time.

I’ve tried to follow this galloping goatshow to Gomorrah, really I have, but I am still not at all sure if there are any height limits imposed on these future buildings. If there are, then I would want to know if this cash-for-FAR bonus, provided by helping to buy cheap properties in our watershed, absolves the developer of those limits.


All of this stuff ties together.

Development regulations—no matter how green—only make sense if the surrounding habitat and clean-up is worth a damn. Having a few more LEED-certified buildings snuggled into a nest of horrid crap, with weak buffers and spotty public plazas that are supposed to act as “parks,” does not seem like a plan. Whatever it is, anyway, it is not what the citizenry of this town was so excited about years ago, before it became this perpetual race to the bottom to provide the puffiest of all tax-payer-subsidized landing pads for the oh-so delicate and skittish prospecting developers. We set the bar timidly low, put on our kid gloves, and shook hands with the adults after they defined the rules of the game. If our candy jar ends up getting plundered we’ll have little solace other than to sop our tears in the pages of this plan.

It might all turn out fine. It could. So many of the right elements are in this plan, are INTENDED by this plan, and are implied as possibilities.

But the wriggle room we provided developers, in this sub-area plan, allows for too much uncertainty to what the public will finally get from the bargain. In my case anyway, my formerly “subdued excitement” has scurried off to the dark corner of “nervous irritation.” I want Bellingham to build something we can be proud of, something that reflects all the things this town has worked toward—AND earned national recognition for.

I don’t easily see that prospect, that potential, within this sub-area plan. 

Cheers to your good work, Wendy.
See you Monday night.

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