Firstphase of boardwalk construction celebrated

Published on Thu, Jul 6, 2006 by Jack Kintner

Read More News

First phase of boardwalk construction celebrated

By Jack Kintner

Blaine’s boardwalk is now a reality. Dedicated on a hot Thursday evening last week, its first official use came five days later as Blaine hosted its biggest Fourth of July celebration in many years, welcoming a crowd estimated to be between 10 and 12,000 people.

The 4,010 square foot plaza at the end of H Street hosted several vendor booths as well as three live theater performances. Next week the 5,600 square foot Lighthouse Plaza, at the end of G Street, will host noon concerts as a part of the Blaine Jazz Festival.

Yet to be built are two more elements of the design, a walkway that will arch west over the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks to the waterfront near the boat launch and the boardwalk itself, a 7,400 square foot walkway between the two plazas on the water side of the row of buildings on the west side of Peace Portal Drive.

It’s already started to draw businesses. Rick Osburn’s Harborside condo building next to the H street plaza and Tony Andrew’s Just-a-Bite

The kernel of the idea that produced this major contribution to Blaine’s downtown goes back to an obscure study completed in 1993 that was funded by a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Called the Blaine Urban Waterfront Development Plan, it was the product of work by an 11-member steering committee chaired by Harbor Cafe owner Joe Slevin as well as contributions from the city council, planning commission, city staff and the consulting firm of McConnell and Burke from Bellevue, represented by senior partner Bob Burke.

Among other things, the report suggests developing a turn-of-the-century waterfront theme for the city, a bridge over the railroad for both cars and pedestrians, improving Marine Drive and downtown streets and sidewalks and building an upper level boardwalk on the water side of Peace Portal businesses with public access from the street-end viewpoints.

But neither the city council nor the administration under then city manager Tony Mortillaro did anything with the plan produced by the committee and it was shelved. In 1994 Brad O’Neill joined the city planning commission and discovered the report sitting on a desk. “I was told that it was never adopted because it was too expensive,” O’Neill said later.

He began working toward some small step that could serve as a direction-setting beginning. The council was at the time considering renovations to Third Street, and O’Neill convinced them to spend an additional $87,000 to do it on a turn-of-the-century theme as the NOAA sponsored plan suggested.

“That vote was four to three,” O’Neill said later, “and was the key step to the whole thing. Had it gone the other way then none of this would have happened. As it was, we got the plan codified so subsequent development would follow the basic design and then began going for grants.”

Since then the boardwalk has had a two steps forward, one step back kind of progress toward becoming a reality. “Brad certainly is one of the people who helped keep the boardwalk idea alive in his role as a planning commission member,” said city manager Gary Tomsic, who succeeded Mortillaro six years ago next month.

The council authorized a boardwalk committee and appointed O’Neill along with council member Ken Ely, assistant public works director Sandy Peterson, Mel Hollinger and attorney Roger Ellingson.

The design came from one of several downtown “charettes,” or design brainstorming sessions, led by Bellingham architect David Christensen.
One downtown problem had to do with the sole surviving element in what was once a thriving adult industry downtown, an adult bookstore in the old Ortel’s meat market at 715 Peace Portal.

According to former city clerk Shirley Thorsteinson, it was the successful effort by the city to close down the bookstore that helped change the ambience downtown.

“Had it remained, it would have occupied the space immediately to the south of the planned H Street plaza and I’m not sure then [the boardwalk] would have ever really happened,” Thorsteinson said in an interview two years ago.

Instead, that will eventually become the site for a four-story condominium that will follow the downtown design guidelines. Developer Rick Osburn, who has since sold the project to another builder who will begin work in the fall, said he chose the location primarily because of the boardwalk.

“The purpose behind the boardwalk is to preserve a view shed of the water for pedestrians downtown and to draw businesses. Osburn’s one, and Tony Andrews is another,” Tomsic said.

Andrews agreed. “That’s exactly why I came back to Blaine. I believe in this town and what the boardwalk says about the city’s commitment to downtown,” he said.

He’s been renovating the 1892 brick building that once housed the Blaine Cafe, and a succession of other business such as Ed Zeum’s Sherwin Williams paint store, Floyd Wear’s photography studio and Ken West’s barbershop.