Who are you and what do you do?

My name is John Reid. I am an architect. I’m from Ireland originally and moved to Bellingham four years ago. Some days I think it’s great. Some days I wonder why.

I am a father of four children. I am the eldest of ten children. I am a product of the Northern Ireland troubles. I moved to Bellingham after my first wife passed away from a recurrence of breast cancer. I came here, I guess for the oldest reason of all.

And you have been working on the waterfront project?

Yes. I came here not sure what I was going to be working on. I do many things. I am an architect and am still connected with a practice in Ireland. I go back there at least three or four times a year. I am a volunteer mediator at the dispute resolution center. I am a poet. I am published in the State of Washington.

And the first year I moved here everyone I met told me about this project called the Waterfront. What they were saying wasn’t always complimentary.  There were so many viewpoints. So many opinions.

After about a year my conscience was pricked enough to go look at the property. I was involved in some big public projects in Ireland. I was also involved in a big waterfront development project there called Titanic Quarter. It was the former Harland and Wolff shipyard. Belfast built the Titanic shipyard—the biggest in the world. Massive employer. They built ships and continued through the First World War, began a period of slow decline till the Second World War and from then it was largely defunct. Shipbuilding was gone but eventually it was redeveloped by a developer from Dublin and I was involved in that project.

So with all that experience it was very tempting to go and offer some knowledge to the good folks at the Port of Bellingham. There were striking parallels: similar history, the shipyard, redevelopment, and the solution. I guess I had experience in that area. The project wet my appetite.

The ecological challenges associated with redeveloping the waterfront get a lot of ink, but those aren’t the only obstacles. What are the primary challenges in working on this project?

I have a huge emphasis in design—design quality and the public realm as I would call it. I think many places are defined and enriched by public space. If the public space is good the public are happy. Sometimes buildings can become almost irrelevant. They only provide the backdrop for really good public space. And when that public space is right and it is connected to the city, and the wider context of where it is, it can have a great richness for everyone to enjoy.

So the waterfront side has the environmental issues—cleanup. And that can be done. That is a technical issue. But cleaning up a site won’t reintegrate it into the city.

The Port of Bellingham has done a terrific job over many years getting it cleaned up and now it’s ready to go. They have done a great job—pat on the back really.

Everyone talks about the opportunity. What I am interested in is how to realize the opportunity. It’s a huge transition for Bellingham—from it’s industrial past to have a big piece of beautiful waterfront property and to move on from that. We’re looking for how to integrate it back into the community, give the community access to it, and then make it a fun place to go to.

So you said that when the public space is right then the public is happy. What are the characteristics of a good public space—what makes it right?

What makes it right from my point of view is its specific locality and context because public spaces change. If you are in a big city public spaces tend to be formalized, structured, axial with big important buildings at the end of them, church spires, lots of rich landscaping; and nice places to sit, read and take in the view.

You come to the Pacific Northwest and it’s a different deal I think. I have gone back and read about the history of the Pacific Northwest to see what makes it tick, what makes it interesting.

I also find out what the people of Bellingham like. The first couple of questions I ask are, “What’s so special about Bellingham?” Sure, it’s just a place with a view isn’t it? It’s just a relaxed lifestyle. And people kept referring to Boundary Bay, number one. And number two Taylor dock and Boulevard Park. Then I think well what is it that people say about these places. These are good places to go to drink, to socialize, to relax and they are connected to this trails culture.

There’s walking, hiking, cycling—it’s an outdoor community who wants an outdoor lifestyle and they love the trail. The trail is this fascinating thing. Looking at the renovation project in New York, David Burnes said, “from rails to trails is when you release that freedom for people.”  

I became very interested in what the trail means, and for me it means connectivity. The waterfront site is disconnected from its community and its geography. What really intrigues me is how to connect it back in so that people can go down and go through it and do things on it.

From the history of Bellingham when it was four small areas joined together—Whatcom, Bellingham, Sehome, and Fairhaven—there are clues about it down on Taylor dock, Boulevard Park and the South trail on the bluff. But right now the waterfront gets in the way, really. What interests me is the question, Is it possible to put it back together? Can it feel almost like it was there from the beginning? People might like that. It might provide a public accessibility to the waterfront. That would be a great step.

Secondly we could do things with the space down there. I’m very interested in art in public spaces—the use of the former industrial plant, buildings, quirky bits of equipment, and those rocket digester tanks.

I think designing good public space requires solving this connectivity problem and providing public accessibility. And secondly allowing people in that space to play and sit and maybe look at old industrial equipment that sort of resonates from the past. It would be great to also have some new public art that recognizes the history of this area. Maybe the Native American community and their place in history. I think that a collage of these different ideas would be an interesting concept for the waterfront.

So having been here four years what are your favorite Bellingham spots?

I like to go to the new museum. I love it as a piece of contemporary design. I like to go just to skip the working day sometimes—go and look at an art exhibition, or a sculpture. It’s also a nice place to go and have a quick salad and a glass of wine.

I love some of the old book shops. I have a love for Irish poetry. I like to go and stay for a half an hour and find a poetry book. I enjoy getting such good deals in those shops.

There are one or two coffee places I have found that I like.

The Pickford Cinema is a nice, quirky, cultural, thinking, visual kind of place to go.

I like to take myself down the trails for a bit of a run—keep healthy and keep well.

You sound like a Bellinghamster to me. It sounds like you are fully acclimated now.

I think I can understand Bellingham well. I can do that on a day to day. There’s a great book I read called, “The Fourth Quarter” which details the history of the Northwest and goes back to where this place came from. It was a magnificent Douglas Fir forest. You find out a little bit about the Native American history, Spanish invasions, the Gold Rush. It tells about where Bellingham started—Whatcom Creek, a logging mill, even the corner of the waterfront site at a place called Donovan Mill. I need history to feed my thinking and understand where a place is coming from. I don’t think that you can design in a vacuum. Appreciation of a place’s past and connecting that past with the future to make that transition softer and more interesting is critical.

I have formed a great relationship with a man named Brian Griffin and have had many conversations about history with him. He wrote the Fairhaven history book. I need that kind of cultural input to feed ideas about design and how to do things.

Bellingham is a young community when compared to places on the East, or especially compared to any place in Ireland. Does your approach to design change in a place that has a relatively short history?

It is. It’s very short.

I think one of the astonishing facts about Bellingham is it’s percentage of young people and students in a city with a population under a hundred thousand. It is twenty-five or thirty percent. That is very high. I think there is an argument that this city should be looking to build its future for the high percentage of young people here—graduates from Western, the Community, and Tech Colleges. We should be thinking about that. That doesn’t mean we turn it into a party town, but maybe it’s not a retirement village either. Maybe it needs to be exploring its horizons, looking at its future economy and future opportunity for that younger generation.

Rather than it just being beautiful making Bellingham a place where ideas can grow, businesses can develop, where people can get better jobs through the creation of new space.

You may have answered this already, but just in case, what does Bellingham need? What are we lacking? Other than maybe an eye for the future?

I think that Bellingham needs to repair the waterfront. You have a derelict, contaminated piece of property that has been sitting there a long time. What I sense, hear and feel is that there is a great enthusiasm to get this job done, to repair and fix it, turn it into a park, build new buildings and get it done. Bellingham just needs to get its act together to get it done. I think the opportunity is right here, right now.

The reason I think that is that Bellingham thus far has been promoting itself, telling the same story. What is new about Bellingham is that we have this fantastic waterfront property. You have the Port, the City, and an Irish developer all lined up in the same direction wanting to make this happen. You’ve got a triangle of people who can do this thing. It is hard to get that. I don’t want to talk about the potential of the waterfront. I want to do the waterfront. I think the three key parties are willing.

Seattle is bursting—endless complaints about lifestyle and travel—it sounds horrible, but I like Seattle. Vancouver is in sort of a different line. Then we are sitting in the middle here with an opportunity to still have lifestyle but also a little bit of growth. I think there is a new Bellingham, one of opportunity that is ready to start moving towards a new future. I think that along the waterfront with new public space you can restore some older buildings, create new residential units, and some new cultural buildings. I think there is a new story to be told.

What still needs to happen in the waterfront project?

There is a lot of pressure to do this thing well. This is a big project. We need confidence, experience, and bold decision making. Maybe letting go of the property and letting it happen, releasing the future that is down there waiting to happen.

People must be tired and bored to death from talking about this opportunity. They want to see it happen.

I think it would be great for this city to take on a new identity which I would call the new Bellingham. To tell everyone else that this idea, this new waterfront that we have been talking about is actually happening. To see if we can attract a lot of investment in the space.

I am very passionate about the involvement of artists in many ways: individual pieces, design landscaping, big sculptural ideas. In big cities all over the world people get their photos taken against waterfront backdrops or in front of big sculptural pieces. I would love to see the City’s promotion or taking on of a big artist project along the waterfront. For me a one million dollar arts project—taking on the digester, the acid ball, commissioning some new art, and integrating some Native American art. You know, making this a cool place to go with postcard views, moments, and experiences.

I also see that the water is fantastic. Why can’t we have a Bellingham Summer Music Festival on the water? Why can’t we have a floating stage? Why can’t we have an amphitheater on the water. Why can’t it create this future that other places don’t have.

You have got to reach for these things. The money is not always there to achieve these things but the idea is a great thing to dream about and sleep on. The idea might spark the people in the community to get behind these things. Bellingham could be more than just a nice place to visit for a day. There is nothing to prevent aspiring to do these things. I’m less interested in square footage and more interested in the quality of it and how it’s put together. It needs to have interesting projects and designs. The mayor of Paris many many years ago set up competitions to get international architects in to design very creative buildings to make landmarks. Ideas like that can change places. Why not reach for this. You only get one go at this thing. Shoot for the stars. 

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