Waterfront planning in 'wait-and-see' mode after paper company closure
When the sudden news came in October that West Linn Paper Company would close after 128 years of business, it wasn't just employees who were left to face an uncertain future.
The aftershocks hit far and wide, and in particular at one corner of City Hall.
John Morgan, the consultant leading West Linn's waterfront planning project, put it bluntly.
"It was shellshock," Morgan said. "And it was the case for everybody — (it was) unexpected."
The paper company, after all, had long been one of the key stakeholders in the City's redevelopment planning project — a large private property owner whose partnership would be crucial for any sorts of improvements or additions on the waterfront. Indeed, the paper mill was mentioned in no less than three of the "guiding principles" that Morgan and his fellow planners drafted and presented over the past year to serve as benchmarks throughout the redevelopment process.
"There are three elements of those (guiding principles) that speak to the mill and basically say in summary, 'We will do no harm to the mill, and (we will) do things to help ensure (the mill's) continued viability,'" Morgan said. "Suddenly, those may not have relevance anymore. Since we held the mill as a constant in all of our thinking, there's certainly a reaction saying, 'Gee, now what do we do?'"
The answer, for now, is to wait and see. The City was originally set to host its third waterfront-related open house — this time focusing on land use matters — Dec. 12, but that will be pushed back until late January or early February, according to Morgan.
"We decided to wait until we knew more from the (paper company property) owners about what their intents were," Morgan said. "There's not a lot of use for a land use conversation when so much depends on the mill buildings."
The City has had a series of discussions with West Linn Paper representatives since the news broke of its impending closure, but much has yet to be decided regarding the property's future.
"We've talked to them several times, and coordinated with them on things like efforts to help employees in transition, referrals to resources, that type of thing," Morgan said. "We're trying to get up to speed on what they're doing down there — we had that conversation so people at the mill know that the City is keenly interested in what will happen. They said they're not ready to make decisions, and asked to give them time, so here we are."
Morgan said the very rough estimate provided to the City was that it will be at least two months before the mill had anything new to share about the property's future. In the meantime, Morgan did appear at the Nov. 2 Willamette Neighborhood Association meeting to talk about the latest on the waterfront planning project and address the mill's closure, as well as answer questions and listen to input.
"(There were) lots of ideas and speculation," Morgan said. "The ideas generally revolved around public access to the river, entertainment, food services, lodging, tourism ... it's all speculation, because it's private property and we don't know what private properties might decide to do."
Morgan added that if the land remains in private hands — which is expected — it is important to remember that it is zoned specifically for industrial use.
"Someone could walk in and propose some sort of industrial use, and that would be fine," Morgan said. "But our expectation is that ... there's a possibility that the owners won't want to do something industrial. It probably will be a mix of uses, and (current) zoning doesn't allow that. So we have to be very involved in how to accommodate and do all sorts of good things with the property owners."
The key for now, Morgan said, is to remain patient and keep rumors from spreading.
"We're working really hard to keep a lid on speculation," he said. "The reality is we don't know, and we certainly acknowledge that it's private property, and they'll make their own decisions on what direction to follow."