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Potential redevelopment of former paper mill site at Willamette Falls would remove about half of site's industrial buildings.

COURTESY RENDERING - A perspective sketch from the lagoon above Willamette Falls looks north across a section of the former paper-mill site now proposed for removal and riverbank restoration.Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, on March 24, shared new renderings of its vision for the future of its culturally significant land next to Willamette Falls, the 23-acre former paper mill property. The Grand Ronde bought the property in August 2019.PMG 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.

Newly released documents show tribal leaders are proposing a more extensive ecological restoration at the former mill's southern end. These plans would include restoring natural basalt landscape and water channels underneath about half of the site's industrial buildings now proposed for demolition.

COURTESY RENDERINGS - Grand Ronde tribal leaders are using historical maps to justify a proposal to remove buildings from the southern half of the site and let the Willamette River flow across a wider stretch of basalt shelf.Tribal Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy said this vision will help restore public access, provide economic prosperity and return the tribe to the role of caregiver over an important piece of its homeland.

"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," Kennedy said. "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."

COURTESY RENDERING - Grand Ronde tribal leaders hope to increase the property value of additional parcels of land by restoring the riverbank to what may have been the historic course of the Willamette River prior to 19th-century industrial activities.Native plantings would be reestablished in the area now proposed for demolition and restored riparian habitat. Tribal leaders hope this environmental reclamation will provide vast benefits for native fish, birds and other wildlife.

"This is a meaningful and exciting time for our tribe and for everyone who will benefit from the healing and promise of our Willamette Falls site," Kennedy said. "We look forward to working with all of the partners who share in our vision for the land, from its historical, ecological and cultural significance to its potential to create prosperity for the entire region."

Riverwalk, development are separate projects

Grand Ronde has previously proposed to demolish buildings on the site, although the latest sketches involve a larger potential area for demolition and environmental restoration. In February, Grand Ronde officials said Mill O has deteriorated in the past decade and would be a likely candidate for demolition after the completion of a second phase of walkway 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.

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' approval of the walkway concept on Feb. 4 turned out to be only a tentative, verbal agreement. The Grand Ronde tribe has since delayed signing on the dotted line to complete the public Riverwalk. The tribe, along with city and county leaders, in February agreed on a plan for a 800-foot walkway alignment that they said would provide the public with "wonderful" views of Willamette Falls and end a series of delays in the project.

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.Oregon City Commissioner Frank O'Donnell, a commission liaison to the Willamette Falls Legacy Project, said that in talking about the site, he always has to distinguish the publicly funded Riverwalk project with potential redevelopment of other areas of the former paper mill by new property owners.

"The Grand Ronde land is theirs to do with as they wish within the confines of the law," O'Donnell said.

Oregon City Manager Tony Konkol said at the March 9 meeting of commissioners that there was some concern from some other tribes in the Pacific Northwest about the involvement they've had in planning the Riverwalk. Metro has agreed to hear their concerns in formal listening sessions, Konkol said, which in turn caused renewed concern by the Grand Ronde about what Metro plans to do with the information it receives from neighboring tribes.

"That's led to slowing down the process a little bit to make sure that we're being respectful to all of the voices at the table," Konkol said. "I agree with Commissioner O'Donnell that there are very separate projects here."

Konkol noted, when the Grand Ronde is ready to develop buildings at the site, the tribe will have to submit land-use proposals to the city's planning department and get permission from various other agencies. Zoning of the district gives the tribe flexibility to build hotels, apartments, museums, markets, offices and light industrial buildings.

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 Co. mill, which is the grey building to the upper left of the 'Bridge Terminus' label on this image.Since acquiring the property, tribal leaders say they've been working with Oregon DEQ on onsite remediation efforts and will soon embark on a master-planning process for the site. Whatever the details of mixed use on the site might look like, the Grand Ronde tribe wants new and revitalized historic buildings at Willamette Falls to reconnect Oregonians with the area, and reflect the tribe's story and its longstanding cultural connection to the area.

No date set for groundbreaking

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.Tribal leaders envision mixed-use development at the northern end of the site that aims to connect visually and physically to the restored landscape. They say potential development could include office, hospitality, institutional or educational spaces, as well as tribal spaces, public gathering spots, restaurants and retail.

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 walamt Willamette River and tumwata 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."

Since purchasing the site, the Grand Ronde 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, Grand Ronde chief of staff and the project lead, told Pamplin Media Group that 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.

Even the tribes refer to it as the Blue Heron site, referring to the name of the former paper mill, but the falls are sometimes known by the native term, tumwater.

The visioning document released Wednesday has three different site concepts. Hernandez says 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.

Currently the only work going on at the site is remediation, with tribal 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.

Pamplin Media Group reporter Joseph Gallivan contributed to this news article.

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