Waterfront development on shaky ground, Geology Department says
Written by: Laura Place
When it comes to building in Bellingham, what’s under the surface is just as important as what’s on it.
Western has been offered six acres of land at the Bellingham waterfront to expand its campus as part of the Port of Bellingham’s Waterfront Development Project. Faculty in Western’s geology department have major concerns about the project, which they initially expressed.
“We let [Bruce Shepard] know the geology department is really against the development at the waterfront,” geology professor Pete Stelling said. “He let us know safety is important and people take it seriously, but it’s also one of the many, many factors that go into this kind of development.”
Both the university and the port have acknowledged the department’s concerns. Brian Gouran is the director of environmental programs at the Port of Bellingham, and a Western geology alumnus.
“We knew from the beginning this is a compromised property, being on filled land and on the water,” Gouran said. “I hope people know that a lot of concerns are legitimate, and we’re trying to take them very seriously and want to have a successful extension of downtown.”
Steve Swan, Western’s vice president of university relations, spoke to the importance of mitigating hazards, but said Western is confident moving forward.
“That stuff is always taken into consideration. It has to be. Safety for all is always paramount,” Swan said.
The department’s main safety concern is liquefaction, which occurs when an earthquake shakes loose sediment and water fills the unconsolidated pores in between. This causes material to behave like a liquid.
Rebekah Paci-Green is director of the Resilience Institute at Western, which educates communities in Washington and prepares them for natural disasters. She said the best way to deal with liquefiable soil is to develop open park spaces, rather than buildings, which can cause damage.
“Liquefaction in and of itself is not a problem,” Paci-Green said. “It’s things falling on you because they can’t stand on liquefied soil that becomes a problem.”
The San Francisco Marina District is one area where this has occurred. In 1989, the marina experienced extreme liquefaction during the Loma Prieta earthquake.
Buildings and homes were completely destroyed by collapsing into the quicksand-like soil, followed by fires as a result of broken water and gas lines, according to the California Department of Conservation.
The Bellingham waterfront and San Francisco Marina District both extended their shorelines through artificial fill, Stelling said. The process involves laying cement over mud to allow for development.
“Living where we do, natural hazards are a factor,” Stelling said. “You can engineer around these hazards. But they’re really spendy. The story of the waterfront is ‘How much money do you have? How much money do you have to facilitate that safe development?’ That’s the big issue there.”
Following a site evaluation, Gouran said engineers use ground densification to help remediate liquefaction. The purpose is to add compact substances like sand and stone to the soft soil. Geopiers and rock columns, for example, are foundational posts that attach down into solid bedrock.
However, what happens when safety laws themselves aren’t up to date?
A “lag in science”
Bernie Housen, chair of the geology department, said geologists’ understanding of seismic and tsunami hazards have increased greatly since the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan.
The damage in Japan demonstrated how the potential magnitude of large tsunamis is far higher than geologists originally thought. However, these developments have not been applied to current building codes, Housen said.
“Development will occur and will follow all the laws, but the laws don’t necessarily reflect, right now, what the best science is,” Housen said.
To account for sea level rise, the city has referred to a study by the University of Washington’s Climate Change and Climate Impact group. The study has projected a rise of about 2.4 feet over the next 100 years, according to Sylvia Goodwin, director of planning and development at Port of Bellingham.
“We built-in recognition of the evolving science of climate change,” Gouran said. “We picked a number about in the middle of estimates at the time. We can adjust assumptions as we move forward, but for now we’re using 2.4 feet.”
According to Paci-Green, this method works until the worst happens.
“Japan picked a number in the middle,” Paci-Green said of the Japan tsunami. “That didn’t work out so well.”
Gouran said he recognized that this is not the most conservative way to build. He acknowledged how, if the worst were to occur, current building codes would not have prepared the waterfront to withstand it.
“There’s definitely a school of thought that you would prepare and build for the worst possible scenario,” Gouran said. “If there was a significant sea level rise, as well as high tide and a tsunami [at the waterfront], there could be more damage.”
However, in the case of a tsunami, the already rising grade would also greatly mitigate damage in the area, Gouran said.
Site class – engineering methods
Jackie Caplan-Auerbach, a seismologist in the geology department, described a site-class system created in California that determines what engineering methods a building needs to be withstand disasters. She questioned Washington’s particular use of the system in judging the hazards of a site, saying it makes the particular classification of the waterfront confusing.
The class system, which originated in California, rates sites from A to F based on the kind of subsurface geology that exists. A means the geology of the site requires no further analysis before building, and F marks the site as needing a site-specific analysis to determine the best engineering options. F is usually given for liquefiable subsurface types such as unconsolidated sediment.
However, due to the difference between California and Washington geology, there isn’t an F site class in the whole state, Caplan-Auerbach said.
“Site class F requires a site-specific survey – site class E does not.” Caplan-Auerbach said. “[The Department of Natural Resources] didn’t feel comfortable defining anything site class F even if it was liquefiable, so what happened is that the waterfront area is categorized at site class E.”
Considering this research, the geology department would like to see the university require stricter building codes that those currently in place, Auerbach said.
Despite the blanket E site class for the waterfront, Gouran said each project will require a comprehensive site analysis specific to each building, including those built by Western. This will essentially mark the site as an F.
In 2013, the city and port completed an Environmental Impact Statement, with the Department of Ecology. The Environmental Impact Statement results require each waterfront project to have a comprehensive site analysis specific to each building, including those built by Western, Gouran said. Mitigation will be designed based on the evaluation results.
“We look at a project-by-project basis, give a broad look to all the issues and all the possible solutions that we know of now,” Gouran said. “We look at ‘How do you address those issues?’ and it really depends on the project.”
Developments increase risk
Beginning this summer, the city will start building two new roads through the downtown area and a new park, as well as continue to remodel the Granary building.
The natural hazards of the area, such as liquefaction, differ from the actual risk that comes from building, Stelling said.
“Hazard is the actual likelihood of an event to happen; risk is how exposed people are,” Stelling said. “If the waterfront is developed as a park, not many are exposed to that because not many people are living there. If it’s developed as residential, then you’ve really increased the risk.”
Harcourt Developments, master developer for the project, is planning on building residential areas at least 50 feet from the shoreline. They will be behind a park lining the water.
“It is all about the material the building is sitting on,” Stelling said. “If the site 50 feet back from the shore is still on unconsolidated, potentially liquefiable material, then the 50 feet wouldn’t make much difference.”
Campus spending and expansion
Actual development of university facilities on the waterfront will take decades, Swan said. However, Western has considered several possible projects.
Currently, Western is planning a mixed-use facility called the Community Engagement and Innovation Center. The goal is to provide larger conference areas as well as high-tech innovative spaces, Swan said.
“If Western is to grow in the future it’s going to need some additional space, and the waterfront offers both space and prime location,” Swan said.
However, the need for renovations on campus outweigh the need for new facilities, Housen said.
“Any time and resources we spend on this waterfront project, which is of secondary importance to what goes on on campus, is a waste of resources that would have a larger impact on our students and allow us to do our job as a university,” Housen said.
Housen cited projects on campus that would be better served by the money being put into the waterfront project.
“This building still leaks like a sieve,” Housen said, gesturing around his office in the Environmental Science building. “There’s all kinds of deferred maintenance, tens of millions of dollars. There are a lot of needs that are best met with projects here on campus.”
According to Swan, the university is in the process of selling a property on the corner of Hannigan and Bakerview roads, and the money would be used to begin purchasing the designated property. The university is putting in a capital budget request of $4.5 million for the remaining funds.
Housen also said there are other spaces downtown that could be developed on solid land that pose no geologic risk.
“A private company who wants to build something can take the risk,” Housen said. “Taxpayers and students who pay tuition should not be taking the risk.”
Western initially discussed putting a Huxley facility at the waterfront. The plan was discontinued for a variety of reasons, but mainly to create a multi-purpose space, Swan said.
A development entity called Western Crossing Development was formed in 2009 between Western and the Port of Bellingham to guide Western’s land transactions and development. This is managed by a five-person board made up of Western’s president as well as a member of Western’s board of trustees.
“Everything ultimately flows through the president,” Swan said.
President Sabah Randhawa addressed questions about waterfront concerns last week.
“I am vaguely aware of the concerns that were raised many years ago by some of our faculty and students,” Randhawa said. “Engineering, I believe, has developed to a stage that can ensure, as best as we can, safe structures. I think the engineering is out there.”
Randhawa also said he plans to continually involve relevant colleges at Western, as plans develop in the next couple years.
The geology department has not yet pursued a conversation with Randhawa about their concerns, but hope to in the future, Stelling said.
“[The university] wants to have a presence on the waterfront, and I understand that,” Stelling said. “I’m a very big fan of investing the money to make sure that’s done wisely and safely.”