Scaled-back pedestrian access along Willamette River to offer better views by 2024, spur redevelopment of former paper mill

COURTESY RENDERING - The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde contracted with GBD Architects and Walker Macy to produce this rendering of what a pedestrian bridge along the Willamette River might look like.Regional leaders on Feb. 4 approved a plan that they say will provide the public with "wonderful" views of Willamette Falls.

Approval of the 800-foot alignment finally ends a series of riverwalk delays. Leaders hope to stay within budget by constructing a scaled-back pedestrian walkway along the Willamette River.

Willamette Falls Legacy Project Manager Brian Moore said he was excited to start the clock on 18 months for design and another 18 months for construction, but he said the "timeline is somewhat out of our control" due to the permitting process being in the hands of regulatory agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"The good news is that we believe we have an approach that is feasible," Moore said.

COURTESY PHOTO: METRO - Riverwalk project leaders hope to construct a path through the parking lot facing McLoughlin Boulevard and then a bridge to the edge of Mill O of the former Blue Heron paper company, a total of 800 feet closer to Willamette Falls than the current sidewalk on McLoughlin.Having received the blessing of the new tribal owners and Oregon City officials this week, Metro will lead the design and construction of the first phase, which would involve a path through the parking lot facing McLoughlin Boulevard and then a bridge along the waterfront to the edge of Mill O of the former Blue Heron Paper Co. mill. Metro and the Grand Ronde tribes are contemplating opening Mill O as a public access area.

COURTESY PHOTO: METRO - Current conditions along the Willamette River facing Willamette Falls give a sense of what the public access would provide in terms of views for pedestrians once the riverwalk project is completed. People are standing where the beginning of the bridge would be constructed.Grand Ronde Tribal Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy praised the project partners for their persistence in tackling "many issues" through constant riverwalk plan rPMG FILE PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Grand Ronde Tribal Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy spoke about the cultural importance of Willamette Falls in an Oregon City appearance in 2018.evisions. Along with sharing the power of the site with the public, Kennedy said the tribes are looking forward to proceeding with demolition, remediation and development of the rest of the site more quickly now that a walkway concept is in place.

"We're pleased that this is happening," she said.

Public access to Mill O is only about halfway to the Mill H overlook of Willamette Falls, which in itself was a scaled-back version of what was originally envisioned as part of the first phase of riverwalk construction.

However, public officials were eager to get any project off the ground that has a good chance of being constructed using available funds. Moore said the project as currently envisioned keeps within its $12.5 million construction budget.

"There's a great opportunity for at least 180-degree views," Moore said.

Construction originally scheduled to break ground in 2018 will now begin in 2022 at the earliest, with completion in 2024. The project's timeline initially was pushed back to a 2020 groundbreaking due to a former property owner's refusal to pay taxes and sign permit applications.

Then the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde bought the property in August 2019 and wanted to revise the alignment of the riverwalk, which then pushed the project to a projected 2021 groundbreaking.

County Commissioner Paul Savas said ODOT's planning for construction of a bicycle/pedestrian bridge between Oregon City and West Linn is potentially "problematic" for the riverwalk project. ODOT's planning process will be complete in six months, but Savas and the other partners wanted no further delays.

Oregon City Commissioner Frank O'Donnell called ODOT's bridge project "a distraction" with the state transportation agency's history of planning for "unfunded projects." O'Donnell said it was past time for all of the agencies to agree on some type of construction moving forward.

"Accomplishments result in donor enthusiasm," O'Donnell said.

Metro Councilor Christine Lewis said ODOT is allowing all the riverwalk partners a seat at the table on planning the potential bike/ped bridge over the Willamette, so she predicted they would be able to avoid any conflicts.

Moore has been closely tracking the ODOT project, meeting with ODOT officials and working to coordinate efforts with them. Oregon City Commissioner Rachel Lyles Smith agreed that ODOT shouldn't be a concern and thanked the tribes for all their work with Metro to get everyone to an "exciting" moment in creating a "destination site" that will benefit all of Oregon.

"We're seeing the culmination of a true collaboration," Lyles Smith said. "We've got to be flexible and nimble. … It's difficult to get funding for later phases when there hasn't been progress."

Mill O's "interim gathering space" wouldn't be in the way of Phase 2 construction, which could place a crane on the south side of the building rather than having to place construction equipment in the river.

Grand Ronde officials said Mill O has deteriorated in the past decade and would be a likely candidate for demolition after the completion of Phase 2 construction. Oregon City previously had identified Mill O as a prime candidate for creative reuse like many of the former warehouses in Portland's Pearl District.

Zoning of the district gives the tribe flexibility to build hotels, apartments, museums, markets, offices and light industrial buildings. Whatever the details of mixed use there might look like, the Grand Ronde tribes want new and revitalized historic buildings at Willamette Falls to reconnect Oregonians with the area.

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