"You've got five thumbs," West Linn Mayor Russ Axelrod said to consultant John Morgan at the end of a work session discussion Feb. 19 regarding possible transportation improvements along the waterfront.
The City Council couldn't formally vote during the work session, but all Morgan needed in order to move forward was a general sense of approval — and he got that in the aforementioned thumbs that all pointed up.
"This is finally getting some traction — it feels good," City Councilor Rich Sakelik said.
Indeed, while progress in planning large-scale redevelopment along the city's waterfront — a project that goes by the official name of West Linn's Waterfront — had slowed over the past year, a sense of momentum was evident at the work session. Not only did the council informally sign off on the transportation realignment plan, but Portland General Electric — which operates the T.W. Sullivan Plant and owns a substantial portion of riverfront property — appeared to provide a long-awaited update on its own planning after agreeing to partner with the City last year.
"I think this will lead to a new period of public activity on this project," West Linn Community Development Director John Williams said. "We've been in a little bit of a holding period for some time."
Round and round they go
Facing the difficult task of improving the traffic situation in an area where four major roads — Highway 43, Interstate 205, Willamette Falls Drive and Highway 99 — converge near the narrow Old Oregon City-West Linn Arch Bridge, the City's transportation plan had four objectives: easing congestion, discouraging through traffic on Willamette Falls Drive, increasing traffic capacity to accommodate redevelopment and conforming to a concurrent Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) planning project for the widening of I-205.
The most noteworthy pieces of the realignment are two new traffic circles — one adjacent to the I-205 north ramp from southbound Willamette Drive/Highway 43 and the other at the intersection of Willamette Drive, Willamette Falls Drive and Broadway Street next to the Arch Bridge.
"The public basically created this option here," Morgan said, referring to prior open houses during which multiple attendees suggested the use of two traffic circles instead of the single one previously proposed.
Willamette Falls Drive would also be re-configured, splitting off in two different directions at a new signaled intersection on Sunset Avenue. Driving east from the Willamette area toward the Arch Bridge, cars would either go left and stay on Willamette Falls Drive or continue straight down a new street that would run adjacent to the West Linn Paper Company mill site before turning off onto the Arch Bridge.
"From an engineering standpoint, (the traffic plan) makes sense, from a traffic flow standpoint it makes sense," Morgan said. "We think it finally gives us an opening to really look at redevelopment of the site."
Morgan said the hope was for the council to sign off on this "conceptual design," which would allow staff to begin work on amending the City's Transportation Systems Plan (TSP) while also coordinating with ODOT and looking into how the project would be financed.
"I use 'conceptual' very specifically because we haven't sat down with PGE and landowners around the property," Morgan said. "Details like (road) width, access points, those types of things — we're not going to address those tonight."
The council did agree to move forward with the concept, though several councilors weighed in with thoughts on how the plan might evolve. City Councilor Bill Relyea, for his part, said that there may be an opportunity to create an access point from I-205 to the segment of waterfront closer to the Willamette area.
"You're absolutely right, and that's one of the things we've talked about," Morgan said.
The view from PGE
After announcing plans to partner with the City midway through last year, PGE delivered a long-anticipated update on the work that's been done so far.
"Most of the land in this upper (river) area belongs to us, and we wanted to have some say and understanding of the process that went along with (redeveloping) it," PGE representative Brian Clark said.
According to Clark, PGE enlisted the Seattle-based Johnson Oaklief Architecture & Planning firm to help evaluate its property — specifically the land near the now shuttered West Linn Paper Company mill.
"We wanted them to come down and assess the conditions of the property, capacity for redevelopment, conditions of the buildings themselves and look at the economics of what might be possible down there," Clark said.
PGE also developed a set of guiding principles for its planning, which included continued operation of the T.W. Sullivan Hydroelectric Plant, support for the reopening of the Willamette Falls Locks, transportation and access improvements around the site and respect for the cultural elements of the waterfront area.
As for possible redevelopment scenarios, PGE honed in on public access as a key element.
"Kind of a driving, overall objective was to give people a chance to see the waterfall," Clark said, adding that active recreational opportunities and mixed-use development could also fit in the area.
Clark also addressed the uncertainty surrounding the paper mill, which closed in late 2017. While there have been rumors of the mill restarting operations under different ownership, Clark said that was unlikely.
"The lease with the mill has been terminated, so any operation would have to engage with us to determine a lease," he said.
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