The Gristle

Mission Creep
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MISSION CREEP: In what’s proving to be the longest courtship of a foreign bride since the Age of Sail, Port of Bellingham staff prepare their third extension of a 120-day negotiating period with their preferred master developer for Bellingham’s central waterfront, Harcourt Developments of Dublin, Ireland. Staff updated port commissioners last week on their progress with the master development agreement (MDA), predicting the documents could be completed by the end of the year. Port commissioners suggested a trip to Ireland by senior staff may be in order to view Harcourt’s Titanic shipyard redevelopment in Belfast, interview locals about the company and examine the developer’s financial profile in detail—an onsite fact-checking mission the Gristle is astonished was not performed many months ago.

Port Executive Director Rob Fix reported that Harcourt has expressed interest in the abandoned Granary Building as an early action project.

Let’s review:

In 2012, the port hired real estate market analyst Heartland LLC at a total cost of more than $335,000 to prepare a request for proposals for a master developer for the central waterfront. Heartland returned in 2013 with just three proposals. One was from a local developer who owned property along Whatcom Waterway the port knew and had worked with extensively on their Bellwether project. Another was an Oregon firm that had helped develop Portland’s Pearl Street district. The third was Harcourt.

The port deliberately held back the Granary Building from this request for proposals because the agency was certain the building, crumbling from the port’s neglect, would be demolished under the more comprehensive development plan. Persistent public pressure eventually persuaded the commission to at least try to solicit proposals to rehabilitate the historic structure along Whatcom Waterway. The port received three development proposals for the Granary Building, at least one of which carried a detailed plan of how the redevelopment would be financed and assurance that the project could commence immediately.

When the port selected Harcourt as master developer, the agency asked the Irish firm their opinion on the fate of the Granary—a preemption that was never in the original request for proposals and deeply disrespectful to the redevelopment offers for the building the agency had already received.

Port staff were dumbstruck to learn Harcourt agreed with the local opinion they’d scorned and derided for years, that the Granary Building held value as an early action and as an architectural set piece to lead into other developments. The port offered the Granary Building to Harcourt, again in an action deeply disrespectful of offers they’d already solicited and received and were assured could begin immediately.

Associated with one of those proposals was architect John Reid, an affable gentleman and Irish national who also had ties back to Harcourt and their Titanic Quarter project in Belfast. Reid, it could be argued, is the closest thing to insight into the mind of Harcourt operating in Bellingham. Indeed, it was Reid who first introduced the port to Harcourt, and vice versa, six months before the port hired Heartland for a quarter of a million dollars to find a master developer.

The port blew $335,000 in a search for a developer and ended up with a molecule-sized pool who were already known and introduced to them.

Last summer, Reid kindly met with supporters of the Granary (including those who had submitted stalled proposals) for a tour of the building and what he considers an equally important early action project, the old Board Mill building on the former Georgia-Pacific mill site.

While not a representative of Harcourt, Reid’s insight that he shared to the group is that the master development plan approved by the port and city last year is a deplorable stack of documents, “an iron slab of an anchor that just kills any creative approach to a master development,” he said. Reid proposed instead a generous serpentine park that would wend through the site, providing connectivity to the city’s parks and trail systems and yield value to any developments built adjacent to it. He was astonished that city residents would agree to pay for the park when it was the developer who would reap benefit from it from the increased value of adjacent properties. The development staging, which builds parks only in the out-years, he considered wrongheaded and upside down.

In short, Reid—the closest mind to Harcourt we have—sounded an awful lot like the local architects and builders and planners and citizens the Port of Bellingham has sneered at for a decade.

Had the Granary Building been given over to the original proposals, its restoration might well be nearing completion, returning tenants to the tax rolls and assisting with the local infrastructure financing tool (LIFT) originally gifted by the state Legislature to leverage property taxes for early development but that has instead evaporated as the port has dithered, pissing away millions of dollars in abject incompetence.

If one thing can be gleaned about Harcourt from a distance, the company can hold property through successive protracted negotiation and litigation that can stall out redevelopment for many years. There’s a sophistication to the means by which this international giant can hold and squeeze value from property that stands in contrast to the abundant hardheaded naiveté of the Port of Bellingham. Neither are accountable to the public’s vision of a restored waterfront.

Should Titanic capsize, the most ready alternative to a foreign private development authority is a local public development authority. After the port haughtily rejected a joint PDA, Bellingham City Council set that lifeboat adrift last month. If the aims justify the means, the port has holed its vessel from stem to stern.

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