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Western Washington University took a major step closer to the Bellingham waterfront this week as both the university and the Port of Bellingham approved a memorandum of agreement that spells out how each could dedicate land to their shared waterfront development entity, Western Crossing Development, and facilitate the purchase of waterfront property by WWU.
“Having Western on the waterfront will add tremendous value to the Waterfront District because it will enhance Western’s connections with the community and will attract developer investment,” said Port Commissioner Scott Walker, who also serves on the board of Western Crossing. "Western is the second largest employer in Whatcom county, and that economic engine and student population has a large impact on local businesses."
Over the past week, Western’s Board of Trustees and the Port’s Board of Commissioners each agreed to the memorandum of understanding (MOU), which is a broad framework agreement between the Port and Western that defines how land can be moved into their shared development authority, Western Crossing Development, to enable development of the WWU presence in the Waterfront District. The Western Crossing Board unanimously approved the memorandum last week.
“We are pleased and excited about this critically important MOU that moves Western closer to being part of what will be a dynamic development of the Bellingham waterfront,” said Western President Bruce Shepard. “Western has been committed to a presence at the waterfront since community discussions and planning first began in 2006, and that commitment is being lived out by the acquisition of property in the Waterfront District. The eventual expansion of our campus to the waterfront creates possibilities for new partnerships and collaborations for Western and community partners.”
According to the MOU, the Port will transfer ownership of six acres of Waterfront District land between the Downtown Development Area and the Log Pond Development Area into Western Crossing. In exchange, Western will transfer ownership of a 24-acre parcel of land at the intersection of Hannegan Road and Bakerview Road into Western Crossing. Once the Hannegan property is sold, the value of the Hannegan land sale will be assigned to the university and the value of the waterfront parcel will be assigned to the port within their shared Western Crossing Development entity.
In addition to Western acquiring a tract of land at the waterfront, which will allow for future development, potentially a public-private partnership, the memorandum also states that Western may lease building space from a developer in the 10.8-acre parcel the Port now is offering for private development parcels. This would establish Western as an early tenant for the Waterfront District.
Large land developments across the country have demonstrated the value a university anchor tenant adds by attracting additional development, creating new jobs and increasing surrounding property values, said Port Executive Director Rob Fix. Examples can be found with Oregon State University on Portland’s riverfront and the University of Washington in Bothell and Tacoma. Where some developments must recruit universities, the Port has benefited by having Western dedicated to being part of the Waterfront District for nearly a decade, he said.
Western participated in both the Waterfront Futures Group and the Waterfront Advisory Group and the university has undertaken a comprehensive evaluation of the development area and its educational programs with a goal of finding the best fit for waterfront based programs that would result in even stronger community and business connections. The memorandum anticipates Western completing a University Development Plan for the waterfront area by December 2015.
The Port is in the midst of seeking a developer for the first 10.8-acre parcel adjacent to Downtown Bellingham and plans to have one selected by the end of the year. The entire Waterfront District is 237 acres and includes several distinct development areas.
All of the development is reliant upon port and city of Bellingham approval of the Waterfront District Master Plan and related agreements and regulations. On June 6, the city Planning Commission unanimously voted in favor of the proposed master plan and it moved to the City Council with some minor recommended changes. Beginning this summer, the Port Commission and City Council will have hearings and work sessions on the plan with a goal of voting on it by the end of the year.
In 2009, WWU Trustees and the Port Commission approved creation of the non-profit corporation and development entity, Western Crossing Development, so that a public/private waterfront development could move forward.
Western Crossing is jointly owned by the Port and Western and they have created a capital account that will track the value of their contributions and those will be reflected in their percentage of ownership of the entity and its developments. The Port and Western also have agreed that there will be a payment in lieu of property taxes as the property develops to help compensate for the site infrastructure development and cleanup costs.
Western Crossing’s governing board includes WWU Trustee Peggy Zoro, Western President Bruce Shepard, Port Commissioner Scott Walker and Port Executive Rob Fix and retired ARCO Cherry Point Refinery General Manager Glenn Butler.