The private property owner of the former Blue Heron paper mill site in downtown Oregon City has signed multiple permit applications that would allow four public partners to move forward with the Willamette Falls Riverwalk.
But before any of the permit applications are submitted, the four public partners are asking that the property owner this spring pay overdue property taxes, utility bills and $200,000 owed under a previous agreement.
“The key takeaway from this is continued progress,” said Jonathan Blasher, director of Metro parks and nature. “It’s a step forward.”
Building the riverwalk is the first step in a larger effort known as the Willamette Falls Legacy Project, a collaboration between Oregon City, Clackamas County, Metro and the State of Oregon. The riverwalk would allow visitors up-close views of North America’s second largest waterfall by volume, which has been largely hidden for more than a century behind private industrial businesses.
The progress comes after the project encountered a delay in September, when the four organizations publicly called for the cooperation of Falls Legacy LLC, which owns the 22-acre riverfront site, to move forward with permit applications.
George Heidgerken, who owns Falls Legacy LLC, turned down an offer in January to sell the property. The City of Oregon City made the offer on behalf of the Willamette Falls Legacy Project partners.
“Though the offer was rejected, Falls Legacy followed up with renewed interest,” said Laura Terway, Oregon City community development director.
In late March, Heidgerken signed off on three items:
- a joint permit application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Oregon Department of State Lands that would allow work in and above the water
- two land use applications to the City of Oregon City
- authorization for Metro to apply for additional permits necessary for the first phase of the project, such as building demolition and stormwater permits.
The riverwalk would be built in phases. The first phase would include repurposing existing buildings to provide upper and lower scenic overlooks and would also provide for some restoration work, public gathering places and the demolition of some of the more than 50 buildings to prepare for future improvements.
Future phases would be planned in coordination with Falls Legacy LLC and would depend on available funding. They would include trails along the Portland General Electric dam to allow visitors even closer views, additional public gathering places, restoration work along the shoreline and more.
Community members spent more than two years shaping the design for visitor amenities. Metro and Oregon City officials approved the master plan at the beginning of the year.
Along with public access, the Willamette Falls Legacy Project aims for historic and cultural interpretation, healthy habitat and economic development.
Before the permit applications are submitted, Falls Legacy would need to pay Clackamas County more than $46,000 in property taxes and Oregon City more than $39,000 in utility bills. The Oregon City News first reported the overdue payments.
Falls Legacy also owes the project partners $200,000 under an easement agreement signed in December 2014.
“A strong public-private partnership requires trust, and because being good stewards of public money is a top priority, the project partners group asked that staff wait to submit permit application until after Falls Legacy follows through on their commitment to make payments to the project this spring,” Terway said.
If the payments are not made, the project partners would reconvene to evaluate their next steps, she said.