Hidden behind the industry on its banks, Willamette Falls has long been out of reach. A $25 million river walk will soon change that.
It’s a sunny morning at Willamette Falls in Oregon City, Oregon, and despite being many miles inland, a sea lion is fattening up on a diet of salmon and steelhead. As birds circle overhead, the sound of the horseshoe-shaped falls—carrying rain and Cascade snowmelt from the Willamette River to the Columbia River and the Pacific—is thunderous.
“It’s a good day to view the falls,” says Carlotta Collette, a councilor with Metro, the Portland metro area’s regional government, as we stand on a viewing platform that will be part of the future Willamette Falls Riverwalk. “It’s almost always a good day to view the falls. And we have an opportunity right now to share it for the first time in 150 years.”
Willamette Falls is the second largest waterfall by volume in the United States, after Niagara, and the largest in the waterfall-heavy Pacific Northwest. But despite the aforementioned wildlife—including fish and Pacific lamprey that Native American tribes like the Clackamas Chinook have ritually harvested for generations—it would be a mistake to call this a natural wonderland.
For more than a century, Willamette Falls has been all but hidden from public view because both sides of the river have been dominated by heavy industry. More recently, the falls has been surrounded by the ruins of industry. Collette remembers first noticing the falls on a map after moving to the area 40 years ago, in 1977, then trying unsuccessfully with her father to find access. She ultimately settled, like many locals, for a distant roadside viewpoint.
Oregon as an American place was practically born here in Oregon City, the oldest incorporated city in the U.S. west of the Rockies. (It’s about 14 miles upriver from Portland.)* One of the state’s founding fathers, John McLoughlin of the Hudson’s Bay Company, established the first non-Native settlement beside Willamette Falls in 1829 to build a sawmill. Later, after the Oregon Treaty was signed in 1846, a succession of lumber, flour, and later paper mills followed. Though much of the natural form of the falls remains, a portion at the bank was long ago outfitted with locks and turbines, making Willamette Falls the source of the nation’s first electrical transmission through long-distance power lines, in 1889.
On one side of the falls, the West Linn Paper Company (in the town of the same name) remains in operation even today. But on the other side, in Oregon City, the Blue Heron paper mill closed in 2011. By that time, a peak of 2,000 jobs had dwindled to about 175.
Landscape of rust and rock
After Blue Heron closed in 2011, Metro, Oregon City, Clackamas County, and the State of Oregon formed the Willamette Falls Legacy Project with the goal of creating a public river walk on a portion of the site, which the consortium hopes will spur redevelopment on the rest of the 22-acre parcel. Last week, after six years of planning, the Legacy Project unveiled a multi-phase river-walk plan. Helming the design team is Snøhetta, the firm behind landmarks like the National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion, the Oslo Opera House, and the expansion of SFMoMA.
Developer George Heidgerken owns most of the site, after purchasing the bankrupt Blue Heron for $2.2 million in 2014, and local utility Portland General Electric still owns the land closest to the falls. But the four Project partners hold an easement from Heidgerken that lays out an approximately 150-foot-wide path along the river, and a signed agreement with PGE to allow access to the dam. Snøhetta’s plan, crafted in conjunction with Portland landscape architects Mayer/Reed and Vancouver’s Dialog after extensive public input, takes advantage of the easement to create new spots for viewing the falls as well as for riverbank habitat restoration.
“This place can be really powerful and inspirational and overwhelming when you first come here. We as the design team certainly felt all of that,” says Snøhetta partner Michelle Delk, who directs landscape architecture at the firm. “The minute I stepped on the site, I turned to whomever was next to me and said, ‘This is absolutely the reason that I became a landscape architect.’ I was absolutely enamored, not only with the falls but with the whole site.”
Though there are more than 50 different industrial buildings here, Delk says she sees the site “as an existing landscape, which is really important to me.” One can even still view the basalt shelf on which the buildings sit, she explained, thanks to hundreds of pilings into the rock. “It’s not a place that was a landscape and became industry or became architecture,” Delk adds. “It is a beautiful landscape in and of itself, waiting to be free or be set in motion again.”
Because the Blue Heron land is organized around a southern continuation of downtown Oregon City’s Main Street, a short walk from downtown, there is hope for economic development here. “The closing of the Blue Heron Paper Company and the lost jobs were a tremendous loss to our community,” says Oregon City Mayor Dan Holladay. But when the public comes back to this site, he adds, “it will mean new opportunities for our businesses and residents.”
So far, Heidgerken has not announced any details or a timetable for development. But he has agreed to Oregon City’s master plan (by co-signing its land-use application), which establishes new zoning, development guidelines, open space, and a street grid.
“Everybody has a point of view on your property. You don’t want to ignore them,” he told The Oregonian’s Steve Mayes at the time of acquiring the site, one of numerous former industrial properties he owns in the region. “You want to work with them. They’re part of the legacy. It’s not about us as owners. It’s not about the city as planners. It’s about the legacy of this site.”
Water’s edge as catalyst
Yet it will take time for the Willamette Falls Riverwalk and surrounding private development to be built; both will rely largely on private fundraising. “I think we’re really probably looking at a 10-, 15-year timeline for completion,” says Tony Konkol, who heads Oregon City’s Office of the City Manager.
The first phase of Snøhetta’s design—a $25 million project (for which about $20 million has been raised), expected to break ground next year with completion in 2022—will be a riverside viewing area about 50 yards away from the falls, where the design also envisions expanding an existing mill building to create a new visitor center. Adjacent is an alcove in the river that Snøhetta hopes to restore in a later phase as a larger civic space called the Yard, with a wide stairway (which doubles as public seating) sloping down to join a lower walkway—not unlike Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square or Oslo’s Opera House.
The plan calls for extensive habitat restoration along the banks of the river, as well as the opportunity to strip some remaining industrial buildings down to their steel frames as a kind of monument to that blue-collar past. (That’s not unlike what has been done at the Gas Works Park in Seattle and at the Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord in Germany.)
If there’s one thing the Willamette Falls Riverwalk design noticeably doesn’t do, at least until some undetermined future phase, it’s offer access to the edge of the falls on Portland General Electric-owned property, as last week’s press tour did. “We have to respect what it takes for them to keep operations and maintenance going,” Delk says of PGE and the turbines. “By nature of what that will take, it will take longer.” There is a shared sense that it is best to give the public a taste of Willamette Falls while dangling the up-close view as a carrot to prompt investment in the whole river walk, and in the southern re-expansion of Oregon City’s downtown.
Even so, there’s no denying that Willamette Falls itself is what’s special. Collette, the Metro councilor, recalls taking an EPA administrator to tour the site six years ago.
“We were walking through the Blue Heron property and he was nodding appreciatively,” Collette explains. “The guy’s from the Bronx, so he’s seen a lot of industrial detritus. But we got up to the falls, and his face just lit up. He said, ‘I see this stuff—these abandoned mills—everywhere in America. But there’s nothing like this waterfall anywhere.’”
*CORRECTION: This post originally stated that Oregon City was downriver from Portland. It is upriver.