The Slow Train Wreck

© 1997 by Paul de Armond

The Slow Train Wreck has three articles:

A Tale of Three Cities
This is the main article on the seven-year effort by Western Washington University to expand the campus without the benefit of a plan, but the appearance of a planning process.
Issues at a glance
A quick overview of the major issues and positions of the University, the City of Bellingham, and the neighbors who foot the bill.
Parking at Western
A sidebar on WWU’s most serious and expensive non-compliance with Bellingham comprehensive land use ordinances.

As an added bonus, a transcript of a portion of the December 6, 1996 WWU Board of Trustees meeting at which they discuss their strategy for obtaining approval for the WWUDCMP without committing themselves to any issue of substance, subverting the Growth Management Act and otherwise carrying on like a tribe of eight hundred pound gorillas.


From the beginning of 1997 to the end of June, I worked on a collection on investigative articles for Bellingham’s new bi-weekly, The Every Other Weekly. In the course of this investigation, I attended public meetings, conducted numerous interviews, and reviewed most of the written record of Western Washington University’s Master Comprehensive Planning process and the City of Bellingham’s associated comprehensive planning activities.

What I found was not pretty. The University had been engaged in a seven-year process of unmitigated and untrammeled abuse of power. The City staff, state legislators, council members and the neighbors had been subjected to the unrestrained power of a major state institution’s administration running amok like an “eight hundred pound gorilla.” Almost all of the people that I talked to were remarkably uniform in their use of this phrase to describe the University’s behavior. After a while, I eagerly awaited the introduction of the “eight hundred pound gorilla” joke in each interview. I would make bets with myself about whether the particular interviewee would introduce the phrase early or late in the interview.

As with any investigative project, the deadline for delivering the articles imposed a cut-off that loomed just as most of the barriers to the flood of information began to crumble. What had started as a 2000 word assignment grew ever larger as the deadline approached. By the time it ran in Every Other Weekly, the package of articles filled more than four tabloid pages — to the delighted consternation of both myself and EOW‘s editor Tim Johnson. In a flurry of late-night full-gonzo mode excitement, the stories got crammed into the paper in time for the print run. Towards the end of the project, Tim was answering the phone, “Yes, Paul” instead of “Hello, Every Other Weekly. This is Tim.” I am grateful for his support and hard work.

At the time we were going to press, both the University and the City were sending signals that the impending Bellingham Planning Commission hearing and the WWU Board of Trustees meeting would be decisive. Instead, the matter was extended indefinitely by a flurry of last minute agenda-rigging on the part of the City Planning director and a decision by the WWU trustees to try to dither past the neighbors opposition. Unfortunately, this attempt at exhausting public participation and delay decision-making into the summer had the opposite effect. The neighborhood groups have intensified their efforts and the University has continued to dig the WWUDCMP a deeper grave.

As of the end of July 1997, the trustees have still avoided any move to adopt the Draft WWU Comprehensive Master Plan — it remains an orphan without parents.

At the last Bellingham Planning Commission hearing, there were — again — unsuccessful attempts by the staff to prevent public testimony by rearranging the agenda. The record remains open and the hearings continue without any visible progress being made.

July 22, 1997

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