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Friday, May 7, 2021

Waterfront development underway after 15-year wait

By Drew Stuart

Waypoint Park is scheduled to open on the waterfront this summer. The park will be one of the first areas of downtown Bellingham’s waterfront to open to the public, allowing people to experience a new part of the city for the first time.

However, this moment will arrive after years of waiting.

Brian Gouran, director of environmental programs for the Port of Bellingham, said redevelopment of the waterfront began around 2003.

“In 2003, the writing was on the wall that Georgia-Pacific was going to be closing down and leaving,” Gouran said. “They were signaling that the mill was on its last legs.”

Georgia-Pacific, the previous owner of the property, operated a pulp mill and tissue mill on the waterfront since the ‘60s. The pulp mill closed in 2001 and in 2007, the tissue mill followed suit.

Workers on location at the waterfront. // Photo by Drew Stuart

The Waterfront Futures Group was formed by the port and City of Bellingham as a result. The project was created to allow community members and business leaders the opportunity to decide what the future of the waterfront would look like.

However, Gouran said redevelopment couldn’t begin immediately because the industrial production of the past century left the waterfront riddled with pollution that would require an extensive cleanup effort.

Both the pulp and tissue mills created various waste products that were dumped into Bellingham’s landfills and waterways. The lack of environmental protections in the 20th century allowed the waterfront to be filled with mercury and creosote, a toxic coal-tar substance.

Cleanup has finished for the Whatcom Waterway and the Central Waterfront, but the rest of the waterfront is still in the process of cleanup.

Tara Sundin, community and economic development manager for the City of Bellingham, said the Georgia-Pacific property had more than just environmental issues slowing its development.

“There was no infrastructure,” Sundin said. She said that because the previous owners were all industrial, no infrastructure existed, including roads that would support civilian building projects.

Additionally, the port and the city didn’t always see eye to eye on how the waterfront should be redeveloped.

“We had a little bit of a difficult patch where we were trying to get the zoning changed, and then we weren’t in agreement with the city on certain things,” Gouran said.

Since the port owned the land and the city was responsible for roads and infrastructure, the two entities needed to come to an agreement.

“We had different perspectives…but around 2012-2013 we started moving forward with the plans,” Sundin said.

The Western Front reported last year that the waterfront is a risky area to develop. The water-saturated ground makes it subject to liquefaction, which occurs when saturated soil loses its sturdiness and behaves like a liquid during periods of stress, such as an earthquake. Rising sea levels mean that structures must be built with those in mind, and due to the threat of liquefaction, the entire area is rated site class E: the lowest geologic rating possible for a building site in Washington state.

“In 2003, the writing was on the wall that Georgia-Pacific was going to be closing down and leaving. They were signaling that the mill was on its last legs.”

BRIAN GOURAN
DIRECTOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROGRAMS FOR THE PORT OF BELLINGHAM

Jackie Caplan-Auerbach, a seismology professor at Western, said that there are several ways to mitigate the effects of liquefaction.

“One of the things people do is use geopiers,” Auerbach said. A geopier is a pole that sticks into the bedrock deep underneath saturated soil that can prevent liquefaction from occurring.

However, given the instability of the waterfront, Auerbach said site-specific research would have to be done to mitigate risk.

“They would have to do a specific survey of that area to have a sense of how deep to drill,” Auerbach said.

Despite the risk, the port will continue developing the waterfront. Gouran said the port has conducted, and is still conducting, site-specific studies on each piece of developable land, and geopiers were used to build the foundation for All American Marine’s boat-building facility on the waterfront.

“Each project has to go through a geotechnical report and evaluation, and a design that a structural engineer has to stamp. There are seismic issues, but there’s mitigation for those.” Gouran said.

Despite numerous economic, strategic and environmental hurdles, Waypoint Park is still set to open this summer, Sundin said.

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