Monday, August 27, 2007

Waterfront Redevelopment: Clean & Green or In-Between?

Everyone around here seems to think cleaning up the former G-P Waterfront and its surroundings is a good idea. Of course, some really mean it more than others, but those are the ones who are willing to work hard toward actually achieving as much of the vision expressed by the Waterfront Futures Group [WFG] as possible.

Remember the WFG? They were the citizens who volunteered to study our ENTIRE Bellingham Bay shoreline in a very visible public process for almost two years, and then incorporate the comments and concerns of all citizens into their own before issuing their recommendations. [See my blog post of 8/20/07, titled Waterfront Redevelopment: Incorporating Waterfront Futures Group Recommendations]

Our entire waterfront extends from Chuckanut Bay, north to about the Cement Plant Pier, a total of six different segments, with the segment in question being the G-P site and much of its immediate surroundings. Perhaps lost in our awareness is that this WFG work was done well BEFORE the Port of Bellingham actually acquired the G-P site. Of course, the Port has long seen the ASB Lagoon as a perfect site for a Marina, and that was a big part of the Port's motivation in eventually acquiring the entire property.

So, if everyone seems to think cleaning up the former G-P Waterfront is such a good idea, why are we hearing so many disgreements and concerns now? That's easy! It's because the City and Port listened to the public and heard it was a good idea! Now that action is being taken toward achieving the very worthwhile goal of 'cleaning & greening' our waterfront, it's normal that such concerns come out and be addressed!

That's the difference between ideas being treated as 'shelf art', or as real goals to be actually sought after! It's good that folks are becoming more engaged in this process because this Waterfront Redevelopment has the potential of redefining our City, so its 'front door' becomes Bellingham Bay - again, the way is was 100 years ago.

What is not particularly helpful is the misinformation -some of which has to be deliberate- that just has the effect of creating more 'pollution' to clean up. But, that stuff does come with the territory, especially in an election year.

Below are some of questions I've heard most often. Perhaps there are others I've missed. Each deserves a concise and credible answer, much of which is already available to interested citizens. Maybe I can help show where some of this information resides, besides in my own memory and research.

How clean is clean? How green is green? What is the cost? Who pays? Why sell public property? What's free? Who's vision 'wins'? How do we finance it? Why now?

Where will the infrastructure go? What if a big earthquake happens? What about global warming? What promises has the City committed to? Who get's to make the 'final' decision?

Is this a suitable place for Mixed Use development? Why do we need another Marina? Who will hold the Port accountable for results? Why did Whatcom County wimp out on LIFT? Is this really an infill site? Why not a working waterfront?

Will the wealthy benefit more than every citizen? Won't this overload City staff? What other priorities will suffer if we pursue this? Why do taxpayers have to pay for G-P's mess?

Why aren't 200-foot Shoreline Management Program buffers mandated? What does 'no net loss of function mean? Why can't G-P's hazardous waste be dumped into the ASB and capped? What can't the entire area become a park?

How can I distinguish gossip from gospel on this issue? Where can I get a really good factual account of salient history, our legal and financial options and how the decisions to be made can be better understood?
Let's begin with a little 'snapshot' history to help set the background for the action being considered.

1. The Bellingham Bay Demonstration Pilot Project has been underway for at least 8 years. Its mission is to clean up Bellingham Bay without the long delays and exhorbitant legal costs that have typified most similar undertakings. It is a process where all major stakeholders participate in coming to consensus on the most effective and reasonable clean-up solutions possible.

This project is being watched nationally with the hope and expectation that it can actually demonstrate such an approach can work. The Port of Bellingham has very ably facilitated this work and deserves to be commended for its efforts! Details are available on the Port's website and elsewhere for those interested.

2. The Port has availed itself of so-called 'Portfields' funding from the federal government to help pay for the costs of cleaning up the waterfront.

3. The Port has a committment from the Washington State Dept of Ecology for Model Toxic Act [MTCA] grant money to pay for about half of the estimated G-P clean-up costs.

4. The Port has committed to the concept of a 'Clean Ocean' Marina, meaning great care will be taken in the design, construction and use of the former ASB Lagoon to make it as envronmentally benign as possible.

5. The Port & City have agreed to the concept of making the entire new Waterfront Redevelopment meet the new LEED [Leadership in Environmental & Energy Design] Neighborhood Standard. This will help make our waterfront a living example of what neighborhoods of the future can be, and likely will attract international attention as a demonstration site for these forward thinking concepts.

Note: At a workshop last year, about 75 people from diverse backgrounds were assembled to focus on what might be achieved on our Waterfront Redevelopment project. The consensus was that meeting a LEED 'Platinum' was possible - the highest rating! Imagine what a boon that would be to Bellingham, in terms of education and green business incubators!
More about LEED in another blog.

6. The City has already been recognized as a national leader in advocating 'Green' Power, and has adopted a Green Building Policy for all its municipal facilities.

7. I almost forgot! Negotiations between G-P and DOE were happening BEFORE the Port stepped in and bought the property. G-P's last gasp idea was to dump all their waste into the ASB Lagoon and cap it, right there on the waterfront. That would have saved them millions, but also kept the contaminated wastes next to the Bay. [Weren't there some questions were about earthquakes and global warming?] If that had happened, the G-P site would have also remained Industrial, preventing public use of the sort the WFG visualized. This outcome is still a possibility if some version of Waterfront Redevelopment doesn't go forward as Mixed Use.

There are probably other good points I can add, but maybe these will suffice for now.
So, now let's talk about 'Clean' and 'Green'.

The debate about 'how Clean is Clean' is an old one that is still germane to the issue at hand. It is a legitimate question that deserves an intelligent answer, not just an opinion or a feel-good wish. The answer, whatever it may be, will either come from the Dept of Ecology, or be vetted by them. And, the answer will largely depend on the land use intended, because different clean-up standards are required for different uses.

Will the entire waterfront be cleaned up to a standard suitable for a child's sand box? Probably not, because the cost would be prohibitive, and other mitigations are available to prevent this use where it is inappropriate. But to qualify for Mixed Use, the Waterfront must be cleaned up to a much higher standard than was G-P's intent or requirement! Please don't forget that point because it is key to this discussion.

The same question -and answer- could be applied to all other property, too! How about our streets, parks, public facilities, industrial sites, malls, businesses, homes? Are these considered clean enough for a child's sand box? I don't think so. But, not to put too fine point on it, the 'mixed use' standard being considered for most of the waterfront is the same as what we have in much of the City now. And, most parents don't let their small children play in unsafe places.

How 'Green is Green'? This may be a much simpler question, despite the fact there are more shades of green than any other color in the visible spectrum. Go ahead, look it up. That's why night vision devices employ greenish images.

The ultimate in Green is unspoiled natural green. We don't have that particular option on our waterfront, because it was spoiled long ago, and part of it is actually built on spoils. But, we can restore much of our shoreline's natural function by creating softer, sloping beaches, replanting eel grass and other habitat that salmon and other aquatic species need to survive. Those things are part of any Waterfront Redevelopment plan that may go forward, to 'green' as well as 'clean', because one is largely inseparable from the other.

Going for a LEED Neighborhood on our Waterfront means walking our 'green' talk in a way that will resound and resonate with every caring citizen, who dares to insist on the best we can do to turn our ailing Waterfront into a model of what it can become for the future. This is really about our future, and our kids, and their kids! Let's get this right, and not be unduly distracted by too much negativity or obscurations that serve mainly to sap our energy and resolve. Let's put positive energy into this and leave no stone unturned in our efforts to go forward. That way, if it should fail to go ahead as a whole, we will at least know we tried our best to make it happen.

It is well-known that most projects require 20% of their effort to achieve 80% of their goal. We may be approaching that level now. Whether the last 20% of this project requires more than the 80% of effort we have left, remains to be seen. But, in Bellingham, 100% percent may equate to 200% somewhere else!