Oregon City will take the lead on planning the future of Willamette Falls, marking a new phase in the efforts to develop the former Blue Heron site.
For more than a year, Metro had been eyeing the property, a 23-acre former paper mill that lay dormant after the 2011 bankruptcy of Blue Heron Paper Co. The regional government has spent about $500,000 studying the property and the risks associated with buying it.
But Metro Sustainability Center director Jim Desmond said that the site's zoning and development issues make Oregon City more suitable to lead the visioning for the falls.
"It's really about a vision for their downtown," Desmond said. "The site… is about half the size of their current downtown. Those decisions should be made locally."
Desmond said Metro will still be available to help Oregon City with public involvement, land use regulations and real estate expertise, to the degree the city needs assistance. He said Oregon City has applied for a planning grant to pay for the visioning of the site.
Willamette Falls is North America's second-largest waterfall by volume, but has largely been inaccessible to the public because of the paper mills on its shores. In the past, planners have envisioned using the site to extend the city's downtown, preserving historic structures where possible on the site and opening up the falls to the public.
Metro first got involved because Willamette Falls could have been eligible for money from the region's natural areas bond program. But the regional government was reluctant to act before finding out more about the site's structural stability and whether past users polluted the Willamette River and its shores.
In 2012, the project's partners agreed on proceeding with four core values in mind: economic redevelopment, public access, cultural interpretation and habitat restoration. The Oregon City Commission added historic preservation as a value at its meeting this week.
“If we do this right, Willamette Falls will be a defining piece of Oregon City – a place you go to work or shop or eat, a place to connect with your neighbors, a place to just relax and take in the view. It also has the potential to become an Oregon landmark,” Oregon City Mayor Doug Neeley said in a prepared statement.
Desmond said he didn't know whether Metro would ultimately end up in the lead on creating a public access to Willamette Falls.
"A number of public agencies could be appropriate and effective stewards of that," he said. "I don't think which agency it is is the driver. The important thing is that it happens."
Representatives from a straight flush of governments – the city, county, regional, state, and federal layers – have lately stepped up efforts for the site. The Oregon Joint Ways and Means Subcommittee on Capital Construction heard testimony Wednesday on a proposal to provide a 50 percent match, up to $5 million, of state lottery money for the Willamette Falls project if the project's partners can come up with other money for it.
Metro Councilor Carlotta Collette and Oregon City Commissioner Kathy Roth are scheduled to travel to Washington, D.C., later this month to discuss whether the Environmental Protection Agency could play a role in cleaning up the site, which has been in use for heavy industry for more than 170 years.