Scenic viewpoints and trails in a newly released design would allow visitors to get up close to Willamette Falls – the second largest waterfall in the country by volume.
The design also includes several public gathering places, restored habitats and a public boat dock.
The first phase of the riverwalk could open in 2022 and would provide public access to a natural wonder hidden for decades behind private businesses at the 22-acre riverfront site in downtown Oregon City.
Planning for the riverwalk started after the Blue Heron Paper Co., the previous owner of the property, filed for bankruptcy in February 2011. When the last mills closed, the opportunity came to provide public access to Willamette Falls and an historic industrial area that powered the birth of Oregon.
“There’s no way I could’ve envisioned something so exciting,” said Metro Councilor Carlotta Collette, who represents the area. “Oregon City is so much about its working class history and the sense of its relationship to the river. We couldn’t have a project that is more perfect for that community.”
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 design calls for selectively removing some buildings and repurposing others. Some buildings would be available for the new private property owner to redevelop, potentially with a hotel, office buildings, restaurants and shops.
What’s in store
The riverwalk would be built in phases, with the first phase to be completed and open to the public around 2022. It includes repurposing the boiler complex and Mill H buildings to provide upper and lower scenic overlooks. It would also provide for some restoration work, public gathering places and the demolition of some buildings to prepare the site for future improvements.
The first phase, including the planning work done to date, is estimated to cost $25 million.
Future phases would depend on available funding. Improvements would include trails along the Portland General Electric dam to allow visitors even closer views of Willamette Falls with an overlook at the Hawley Powerhouse foundation site. Additional work would complete the signature public gathering place nicknamed “the public yard,” convert Mill O into a sheltered gathering spot, complete more restoration work and additional improvements.
“This was always conceptualized to be a world-class riverwalk project,” said Brian Moore, the Willamette Falls Legacy Project manager. “I’m most excited about revealing the historic shoreline and alcove. It’s a really compelling chapter to the site to recover the historic shoreline.”
A complex site
Designers Snøhetta, Mayer/Reed and DIALOG spent two years coming up with the design. Through the process, project leaders and the design team held three major public events and more than 50 community conversations to hear from thousands of community members to learn more about the types of experiences they want to enjoy at Willamette Falls.
The feedback was weighed against the constraints of the complex site, which houses dozens of buildings and where water rises and falls 20 feet between summer and winter.
“It was a constant process of diving in and taking a step back, which I think was important to get to where we are,” said Michelle Delk, the lead designer from Snøhetta. “There’s an incredible existing landscape… the natural environment but also the structures that are there today. That condition is really three-dimensionally complex.”
Throughout the process the designers kept in mind the four core values of the project that were developed after extensive community feedback: historic and cultural interpretation, public access, healthy habitat and economic redevelopment.
Feedback from community members reinforced the values, Delk said. For instance, people said they supported restoring habitat, even if people couldn’t explore those areas.
“We took some of that feedback and incorporated what we refer to as explorer trails, where you pass over those habitat areas, but you don’t necessarily have to experience them down to your feet,” Delk said.
A new chapter
The hope is that the riverwalk will attract tourists from around the state and country and will help spur economic redevelopment of the larger area.
“After six long years, we have the opportunity for the next generation of economic, employment and community prosperity on the 22 acres,” Oregon City Mayor Dan Holladay said at a June 3 celebration of the riverwalk design at OMSI. “This first phase of the riverwalk will not only provide access to the river and views of the falls, but will also provide a boost in value to the site needed to ready it for new private investment and development, creating an entirely new place for people to live, work and play.”
The riverwalk design and renderings will help Rediscover the Falls, the nonprofit friends group, in its fundraising efforts, said Alice Norris, chairwoman of the group and a former Oregon City mayor. The group will launch a campaign later this year to help build $10 million for the project, she said.
“Having this design with the quality and focus on those four values and doing something in a really respectful and historic preservation kind of way will set the stage for the fundraising that we need to do,” she said. “I think it will capture the public’s imagination and motivate funders to be part of this unique project.”
Residents at the celebration praised the design and said they were most looking forward to public access of the falls.
David Kaplan, a Portland resident, worked in Oregon City in the early 1970s and used to walk along the bluff overlooking the falls. Even today, he enjoys kayaking to Willamette Falls every few years and would like to see the riverwalk provide connections to the historic Canemah neighborhood and Metro nature park of the same name.
“They’re going to keep the shell of the buildings,” he said. “The concept of using the boiler plant and taking the skin off the mill is really cool. … I’m excited about it. I hope we can do it. There’s a lot of imagination.”
Diane Roland lives a bit outside of Oregon City and said she’s looking forward to visiting the riverwalk when it opens, though she’s worried about the parking.
Oregon City is taking the lead on developing a parking and transportation strategy for the entire downtown area. On the list of considerations are drop-off zones, shuttles and other options.
Oregon City resident Holly Swogger is looking forward to taking walks and “just being able to get a good view of the falls.”
“The idea of this is going to be beautiful, but it’s going to be a lot of work,” she said.