By Peter Newland
Kimberly-Clark’s decision to close its pulp mill and leave town was the last chapter in a century of heavy industry on Everett’s waterfront. People are now thinking about new uses for the city’s urban shoreline.
Even though they have disappeared, up and down I-5, Everett is still famous for its smokestacks. Locally, nobody misses the smoke, but we all miss the high-paying jobs that helped build our houses, buy a lot of cars and send so many of us to college.
Missing those jobs won’t create new ones.
That’s why the City Council’s recent decision to limit Kimberly-Clark’s defunct mill site to water-dependent industry was a mistake. It tries to preserve the status quo even though that ship has already left the dock. If Everett’s downtown core is ever to be vital again, we need to rethink our goals like successful, forward-looking cities and towns across America have done for as long as I can remember.
When you look up and down the west coast, it’s obvious that restricting 60 acres in downtown Everett for deep-water ships doesn’t make sense. Ports from San Pedro, Calif., to Prince Rupert, B.C., are bracing for losses next year when Panama opens larger locks to handle ships with five times the capacity of the current Panama vessels. Ports on the east coast are spending billions to handle the new container ships that will completely bypass the west coast.
Communities that focus on the past tend to end up with abandoned factories and empty docks. Communities that look ahead and encourage new uses usually do well. They bring vigor and economic vitality to their shorelines.
Now that the mill buildings have been razed and the view is much improved, it is easier to see the wisdom of connecting Everett’s struggling downtown core to the central waterfront with a mix of modern uses.
I don’t think the city council will let our central waterfront languish for years before it revisits the issue and settles on a plan that can bring vibrant growth to the city’s downtown core. I think we are at the beginning of a promising discussion.
During the city council debate, one member, Brenda Stonecipher, urged the council to approve a promising, forward-looking plan that would not threaten to saddle taxpayers with the property. Privately, other council members question whether it’s desirable or even possible to attract deep-water-dependent industry to the city’s downtown waterfront. They say it was less a planning decision than a political one. For sure it was not a useful decision.
It won’t achieve any of the goals identified by the citizens who responded when the city asked them for ideas. It won’t create many new jobs. It won’t connect downtown Everett to the central waterfront. It won’t encourage development on surrounding land. Those who have jobs on what is left of our working waterfront won’t likely see any benefit from locking up the Kimberly site for “water-dependent” uses.
It’s no secret that Kimberly-Clark would like the Port of Everett to take the pulp mill site off its hands. But that would be costly for taxpayers. Kimberly-Clark is a Fortune 500 company that made a business decision to dismantle its mill and leave town. It has all the resources necessary to clean up its property, put it in private hands and keep it on the tax rolls. It doesn’t need taxpayer help.
The Port of Everett has an unfortunate development history. It has announced one grand plan after another and has failed to deliver. It would be a mistake to depend on the port to make Everett vibrant again. It already has more underutilized and unused property than it knows what to do with.
Drive across the Snohomish River on old Highway 99 and look upstream where Weyerhaeuser’s Mill B used to stand. The port bought that property with public money and removed it from the tax rolls. It used more public money to clean up the property and install expensive infrastructure. It sits there idle as it has now for 30 years.
If you look downstream, you’ll see the old Weyerhaeuser Kraft Mill site. It was purchased with private capital and it’s never been off the tax rolls. The site is bustling with activity and good jobs. Ironically, some of the people working there are refugees from port development efforts that failed.
Successful, forward-looking communities look at empty docks and abandoned factories as a chance to start over and modernize. Since the invention of the steam engine, whether it’s Sydney, Australia; Boston, Massachusetts; Seattle, Washington, or Grand Haven, Michigan, they have all changed and keep changing to remain vibrant and competitive.
Baltimore, Maryland, is perhaps the most familiar example of a waterfront moving from vibrant to vacant to vibrant again. In the 1970s, Baltimore’s leaders realized the city would be in dire financial straits if they allowed their waterfront to languish. They decided to redevelop the city’s ramshackle inner harbor. Their years of work and millions of dollars of public and private investment have added residential and commercial space to an empty harbor and made Baltimore’s renewal an overall success.
To see what it takes to transition a shoreline from vacant to vital closer to home, look what is happening in Seattle. Forty years ago, Seattle was tearing down abandoned factories and building container terminals. Today they are removing the viaduct, digging a huge tunnel and planning to reconnect their downtown core to the harbor and encourage people to live there, work there, do business there and enjoy the waterfront. One prominent developer has already proposed converting the large container terminal west of CenturyLink Field to more diversified uses as container traffic begins to dwindle.
Successful efforts begin with two essential questions: What is the vision for this waterfront? What happens after the vision?
In designating the Kimberly mill site “water-dependent,” the city paid deference to the past. If we want a vibrant future and want to attract people and commerce to come here, we need to go back and answer the essential questions.
Let’s begin the conversation with the first question: what is the vision for our waterfront? Together let’s craft a realistic, 21st-century answer. If we put our minds to it we can make Everett the most livable city on the I-5 corridor.
About the author
Peter Newland was born and raised in Everett. A former elected official, he is Managing Partner of Hill Street Investment, LLC, and has four decades of experience building and developing commercial real estate in the Everett market.