Willamette Falls: Tribes give glimpse of mixed-use development
The former mill in Oregon City will have residents, shops and park land. The 23-acre Blue Heron site near Willamette Falls will "have public access, provide economic prosperity and return the Tribe to the role of caregiver over an important piece of its homeland," said its owner, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, on Wednesday, March 24.
The tribes plan an "environmental and cultural restoration alongside thoughtful new development," according to a visioning document released that day.
The Tribe envisions mixed-use development at the northern end of the site, away from the falls. Potential development could include office, hospitality, institutional or educational spaces, as well as tribal spaces, public gathering spots, restaurants, retail and a long-imagined riverwalk. Sketches from architects GBD and Walker Macy show three story buildings in a leafy streetscape as one enters heading south from Main Street.
Andrew Mason, the executive director of Willamette Falls Trust, the nonprofit organization that raises resources and advocates for the revitalization of the site, hinted as much in a March 2020 tour of the site.
The Oregon City site will undergo extensive ecological restoration at the southern end, which would include restoring natural basalt landscape and water channels underneath defunct Blue Heron paper mill buildings. Native plantings would be re-established, and restored riverbank habitat would provide vast benefits for native fish, birds and other wildlife.
"Acquiring the property at Willamette Falls let us reclaim part of our history and allowed us to once again become stewards of the land and the falls," said Cheryle A. Kennedy, Chairwoman of the CTGR. "Now, we head into the future with a vision for this land that helps heal it and revitalize it while telling our story and sharing our history."
One page in the visioning document shows a generic hotel room with the word "hospitality." The text reads:
"Today, the site is a sprawling former industrial complex. Tomorrow, it could offer a signature restored riverbank incorporating several former falls channels, native species of vegetation and new spaces for gatherings, ceremonies and events. After restoration, a new place focused on the Willamette River and Willamette Falls will create new demand in the market for space at the site attracting uses such as offices, hotels or institutional/education to lease space in buildings at the falls."
The tribe acquired the property, located on the east bank of the Willamette River in Oregon City, from a private owner in 2019. Since then, the tribe has been working with a design team from GBD Architects and Walker Macy to create a vision for the site. Focused on the central idea of healing, the vision will also be guided by the values of spirit, place, people and prosperity.
Stacia Hernandez, the Chief of Staff for the CTGR and the project lead, told the Business Tribune they can't say when ground will be broken on any of the work. "In the next month we will get the master plan going," she said.
The tribe has been working with Oregon DEQ on onsite remediation efforts and will soon embark on a master planning process for the site.
Even the tribes refer to it as the Blue Heron site, but the falls are sometimes known by the native term, tumwater.
The visioning document released Wednesday has three different site concepts. Hernandez said the master plan should be written by the end of 2021. It is where the tribe, acting as developer, and the architects look at the market analysis they have already done and try to plan out where shops, offices and hotels would best be built. Complicating things is the number of abandoned industrial buildings, some of which must be demolished and some which can be reused. And on top of that is the tourist-friendly Riverwalk, which could be built sooner but mist coexist with construction for several years.
So far, the four core values of the development - public access, economic development, historical interpretation and habitat restoration - are more associated with the riverwalk project because it is further ahead.
Metro is leading the design team for the riverwalk, but fundraising for it is being led by the Willamette Falls Trust. Hernandez said the tribe is the main voice in deciding how to develop the site, and the trust is focused on the riverwalk.
The only work currently going on at the site is remediation, with tribe crews working with the DEQ to clean up industrial pollution and clear weeds. Recently they removed a large underground fuel tank and replaced the contaminated soil around it.
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