For nearly 170 years, Milwaukie's story has been written in water and wood, rail and roads. That story continues – in new ways.
The steamships that encouraged early development are gone, replaced by motorboats plying the river beside gently sloping Riverfront Park, once a log dump and industrial site.
The flour and lumber mills that dominated the city's early economy closed decades ago, but Milwaukie Lumber remains a landmark downtown.
The streetcars linking the burgeoning downtown to other Clackamas County communities and Portland stopped running almost 60 years ago, but their leftover right-of-way is now the Trolley Trail, whose final phases will soon connect it to the Springwater Corridor in nearby Sellwood.
And of course, there are new tracks in town, carrying MAX light rail through downtown every 10 to 15 minutes – linking the small community to the rest of the region's transit system in a wholly new way.
Early settlers hoped Milwaukie would rival Portland as the region's great center. While it fell short of that goal, years of relative quiet have become a great asset. Close to downtown, close to jobs and close-knit, the "Dogwood City of the West" is now looking toward a new chapter – based, as ever, on how it connects with the rest of the region.
One year after the Orange Line reached Milwaukie, here's a glimpse of what's changing in Oregon's 27th largest city.
Where Milwaukie has been
An aerial photo of downtown Milwaukie from the 1950s seems to depict a rural community that could be almost anywhere in Oregon's timber-producing areas. A mill dominates the waterfront. City Hall and the high school anchor a clearly identifiable Main Street lined with shops, while a railroad bisects the town. To the west, a state highway carries travelers and trucks past downtown with hardly a pause.
In the next few decades, Milwaukie would grow quickly, annexing new suburban developments to its east, linked by upgraded roads like the Milwaukie Expressway to growing commercial developments along 82nd Avenue.
But at the west end of the city, the downtown stumbled – in part, locals say, because of those same commercial developments to the east, particularly Clackamas Town Center.
"For a long time downtown Milwaukie was this thriving, wonderful place. It had grocery stores and all these other little shops," said Metro Councilor Carlotta Collette. "And then it went kind of dark."
That's how the founders of Dark Horse Comics – one of Milwaukie's best-known companies – found downtown in the 1980s. Over the next decade or so, the company took over several buildings around Main Street.
"I think Dark Horse basically was downtown Milwaukie for a long time," Chris Beeson, a former product development manager, told Willamette Week in August.
By the early 2000s, Milwaukie was starting to pick up in activity. The Sunday farmers market – a local favorite that also attracts visitors from nearby communities – began operations downtown in 1999.
Clackamas County Chair-elect Jim Bernard – who owns a car shop downtown and was mayor from 2001 to 2008 – cofounded the farmers market when has was serving as president of a downtown business association. He said the market played a big role in connecting Milwaukie residents with their leaders and a vision for the future.
"I always thought of the farmers market as the living room of the community," Bernard said.
Bernard also said the city changed its approach to engaging with the rest of the region.
"We had a community that had no relationship with the region and we turned it into a community that participated in regional decisions," Bernard said.
In 2006, a $14 million, 97-unit mixed-use community, North Main Village, opened just north of City Hall. That project received $560,000 from Metro's Transit-Oriented Development Program.
New shops began coming in. But Milwaukie remained a quiet community with little growth, with thousands of residents fighting traffic on McLoughlin Boulevard or the Milwaukie Expressway to get to jobs elsewhere, and thousands more doing the same in reverse, to come to jobs in Milwaukie.
Where Milwaukie is now
In summer 2015, Milwaukie's name started showing up in downtown Portland, as TriMet posted signs on the Portland Transit Mall for the new MAX Orange Line.
It hadn't been a direct journey for the 7-mile line to Milwaukie. Though on planners' maps since the 1990s, the line twisted through ballot measures, legal challenges and public battles, and several years of construction before orange-signed trains finally arrived in downtown Milwaukie on Sept. 12, 2015.
So where is Milwaukie today, now that MAX has come to town?
Well, it's complicated. Change is happening, but it hasn't been overnight.
The Orange Line, with its three stations in Clackamas County, has attracted about 11,000 weekday riders along the whole line. That's less than expected in the line's first year. A recession and slower-than-expected development along the line have dampened ridership a bit.
Still, the Orange Line sees 38,000 boardings and deboardings each week at three stations in Milwaukie and Clackamas County – and some are already seeing the impact.
"I was hoping it would bring a lot more foot traffic, and it has worked," said Jill Younce, owner of the Painted Lady Coffee House, in downtown Milwaukie since 2012.
Deana Marie, who bought Birch Salon downtown in September 2015, said MAX has been good for her business too, by making her more visible to commuters and also making downtown seem more inviting even for residents who come by other means.
"It's cleaned up the downtown area a lot, and I think people respect the area more," Marie said.
But Colton Marris, an employee at Main Street Collector's Mall, said he felt the impact on downtown Milwaukie had been minimal – at least so far – because as he sees it most riders are going into Portland for work, not the other way around.
"We do get a couple people coming once in a while, but it's not like a mass influx," Marris said. "Most of it's going the other way – into Portland."
However, Marris added, that could change in the years ahead.
"It's going to move people from Portland to Milwaukie and more people are going to be living down here because it's going to be easy for them to travel to Portland to work by way of the Orange Line," Marris said. "I'm sure if there are more people living down here, we're going to see more people walking around Milwaukie."
The Orange Line brought more than light rail, of course. Its development included 2.5 miles of new sidewalks and paths and hundreds of bike parking spots in the city. And a recent survey by Metro, Clackamas County and the city of Milwaukie shows strong interest in using these options. In the year the line has been open, the survey found, residents near the three Clackamas County stops reported making 10 percent fewer drive-alone trips, reducing their total driving by more than 1.3 million miles in a year. Nearly a quarter reported they were interested in learning more about travel options.
That may have something to do with who's moving to Milwaukie.
The attention and links the line has brought to the community – combined with continuing relative affordability to other close-in areas of the Portland region – is attracting new families and homebuyers. People like Zac and Nicole Perry, who moved from Southeast Portland in 2008. Or Angel Falconer, who moved with her family to northern Milwaukie in 2008 (and was elected to City Council in November). Or Adria Decker, who purchased a home with her family near downtown in 2014.
But families like these haven't led to a population boom in Milwaukie – at least not yet. In 2015, the Census Bureau estimated the city's population at 20,830 – around 2 percent greater than in 2000. During those same 15 years, the city of Portland's population grew nearly 20 percent.
The Milwaukie community isn't resting on light rail laurels, leaders and residents say. They're putting their energy to work to address old problems and contend with new challenges.
Affordability ranks among the highest concerns. More people have come to town, and there hasn't yet been much new development in the city. As a result, competition for housing has become more intense.
The city's home sale prices rose 30 percent from 2008 to 2016, from $230,000 to $299,900 – about 10 percent more quickly than the rest of the region, according to RMLS. Home prices remain lower than the regional average, but that's leading to booming demand. Last year the city saw just over 500 home sales in a year – 56 percent more than the year before – with home sales closing twice as fast as elsewhere in the region.
"It's a more popular place now. Prices of home and rents have risen dramatically," Mayor Mark Gamba said.
In an attempt to fight back against rising prices, the city declared a renter state of emergency in April, creating new protections intended to help keep renters in their homes, such as requiring 90 days' notice before an eviction without cause.
And like other cities, Milwaukie is grappling with its housing shortage by seeking to unlock new opportunities for development. The city also hopes to create more jobs in the community so that more residents can work near home. Milwaukie remains a job importer, with 12,000 people come to work in the city each day, while 7,000 residents go somewhere else to work.
But Milwaukie's city limits are surrounded on three sides by existing development and on a fourth by the river. To add homes and jobs, Milwaukie has to look inward.
One area ripe for new development is the North Milwaukie Industrial Area, just north of downtown, with easy access to the Orange Line and McLoughlin Boulevard. A Metro-funded planning project is just getting underway there.
Downtown is another prime candidate for both new housing and jobs. There are only a few empty storefronts today, but the area still has several open or underused lots, and there hasn't been much new housing development anywhere in the city since the Orange Line opened.
That could change in the next few years. The city has adopted an urban renewal plan for downtown and a commercial area just to the east along Milwaukie Expressway, in part to encourage new housing development.
Zoning in the downtown area generally allows four-story residential buildings with retail on the ground floor, intended in part to keep downtown feeling approachable and to foster more commercial opportunities.
"The next five years should be really interesting to watch. We are hoping to steer the development so it’s the development that the city wants and not just development for development’s sake," Gamba said.
One unique approach the city is exploring: Cottage cluster development in neighborhoods near downtown, as an affordable middle-density option. On Dec. 1, the Metro Council awarded Milwaukie a $65,000 equitable housing grant to assess the feasibility of the concept on four sites.
Working for safer streets citywide
Light rail also only directly touches part of the city. Residents are stepping up with leaders to create strategies to make getting around safer all over the community.
"The downtown is great. It has sidewalks, it's pretty walkable," Gamba said. "But when you get out into the neighborhoods, they don't have sidewalks or bike lanes or bike paths."
What those neighborhoods do have are passionate people willing to stand up for better streets, particularly around schools. Milwaukie's Safe Routes to Schools program has particular energy around it, led by many parents who want better ways for their kids to get to school.
"There are gaps where there's sidewalks for a few blocks and then there are not. Or a bike lane missing for a block," said Nicole Perry, who has been active in those efforts and also bikes her kids to school most days.
"The parents came together and said doesn't make sense for us to be driving our kids when we live walk five or six blocks away and this is a great way for them to get exercise," said Milwaukie City Councilor Karin Power.
"They have been building a movement in a lot of our suburbs to help provide us with the input we need as elected officials to prioritize these investments that make it easier for families to get to school together," Power added.
That movement has had results. Parents from Milwaukie were among those that successfully pushed the Metro Council and regional leaders to include a new regional Safe Routes to School program in the most recent round of decision-making for how to spend federal transportation funds. And they helped push the City Council to adopte a "Safe Access for Everyone" plan, a monthly fee for residents and businesses to help invest in safe walking and biking.
Meanwhile, grassroots groups like Bike Milwaukie have pushed leaders to think of their community as a potentially great biking city, advocating for new greenways and safer links.
Learn more about transportation wins in Milwaukie
"Still that small town"
Some say that Milwaukie's growing energy, but still small population, give it an advantage as it looks to the future.
"One of the biggest things I found exciting is that it's a small enough city and the politics are local enough that I really felt I had a voice in my community," said Zac Perry, who chairs the Linwood neighborhood association in northeast Milwaukie. (He is married to Nicole Perry.)
And it's still a community with a unique position in a larger metropolitan region that's growing quickly – with a location, character and links that provide opportunities for growth while retaining a small-town character many celebrate.
Even as development comes, Milwaukie will likely remain among the region's smaller cities. By 2040, Metro forecasts the city will have about 23,150 residents – only a few thousand more than today.
"It’s still that small town. People wave at each other," said Dave Aschenbrenner, a 25-year resident, local historian and Hector-Campbell neighborhood leader. "It’s not like we’ve got traffic signals at every corner."
But like others, Aschenbrenner looks toward the future with expectation and hope. He's happy to see new coffee shops, breweries and stores downtown, excited by the energy of neighborhoods all around, but he's also aware that Milwaukie still has a lot of untapped potential.
"We would like to see something more," he said.
Marne Duke and Guadalupe Triana contributed reporting to this story.