by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: - Pamela Levenson lounges at the partially cleared waterfront site opposite Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park that her husband Willie hopes to convert into a beach named after McCalls wife Audrey. Urban planners have long bemoaned how Portland turned its back on the river running through the heart of the city, and crafted many plans to re-connect residents to the waterfront.

Willie Levenson isn’t sitting around waiting for those dust-covered plans to be fulfilled.

Levenson organized the first annual Big Float three years ago, where more than 1,000 people plop on inner tubes in a mass crossing of the Willamette River from downtown. He mobilized volunteers to remove concrete chunks from the bowl at Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park north of RiverPlace, hoping to make it an inviting place to swim or hang out. He formed the nonprofit Human Access Project, recruiting a board of directors to pursue his vision.

This summer, the Human Access Project hopes to remove boulders and improve the path at Marquam Beach, a little-used stretch of riverfront south of RiverPlace.

And Levenson dreams of creating a third central-city beach on the east side, south of the Hawthorne Bridge where homeless people often sleep. Across the river from Waterfront Park, the site isn’t ready for the public yet, though crews have quietly removed concrete and boulders over the past three years. But Levenson already has settled on an informal name: Audrey McCall Beach.

“Tom McCall is really the guy that made all of this happen,” Levenson says, referring to the television documentary, “Pollution in Paradise,” that the former newsman produced before going into politics. The program drew attention to the river’s sorry state, and McCall promoted its cleanup when he became governor.

“He was the person that brought to light that it’s shameful not to take care of our waterways,” Levenson says. So, he figured, why not name the beach after the popular governor’s wife?

Not treading water

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE  - Willie Levenson, ringleader of the Human Access Project, partnered with the city parks bureau to install new, larger warning signs at  Waterfront Park north of RiverPlace. Levenson hopes the signs will promote more swimming at the small beach there. Levenson, whose wife runs Popina Sportswear, didn’t get involved in this work to drum up bathing suit sales. Rather, he was inspired by Radford, Va., and Boise, places where he formerly lived that nurture central-city rivers as vital places for residents to swim, paddle and hang out.

He figured the time was ripe in Portland, after completion of the $1.4 billion Big Pipe project that ended most untreated-sewage discharges into the Willamette River.

Over the last three years, Levenson says volunteers removed 140 tons of concrete chunks and other debris by hand from the Tom McCall Bowl, during the Willamette Riverkeeper’s Great Willamette Clean-up and subsequent work parties he organized called Unrock the Bowl. He doesn’t know where the debris comes from, but finds it mars the natural qualities of a beach and makes it hard to put down a towel.

Levenson coaxed Portland Parks & Recreation to put up an initial sign last year, alerting the public they can swim there, at their own risk.

Portlanders aren’t yet flocking to the beach, but Levenson says he’s noticing more people hanging near the riverfront, and diving into the water from the small-boat docks near RiverPlace. Last summer, he started a Meetup group for people to swim together at the bowl.

Marquam Beach is where the Big Float takes off from, but it’s not used much as a beach either. “It’s here; there’s just no safe way to get to it,” Levenson says.

The path is funky and people must navigate over riprap to get to the water’s edge, making them feel like they’re trespassing. Once the trail is improved and rocks removed, he’s hoping Portland Parks & Recreation will install a sign there this summer, alerting people they swim at their own risk.

When he first envisioned Audrey McCall Beach it was “hypothetical,” Levenson says. Now it’s seeming more real.

“To remove the concrete chunks, we had to get permits from seven different agencies,” Levenson says. Inverness Jail inmates helped remove and haul out heavy chunks of rock, concrete and asphalt. “Now that we’ve removed the concrete chunks, the beach is coming back naturally,” he says.

Now people can stroll south along the river from the Hawthorne Bridge to a small-craft dock, which wasn’t possible before.

Levenson learned that an entire dock sits mostly submerged in the river bed, a hazard for swimmers. He recently won approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to remove it, and is raising $2,000 to pay for that project, which requires heavy equipment.

There’s also river sediment contaminated by PCBs. That poses more of a health hazard for fish than for swimmers, Levenson says, but a project is planned to clean up the pollution.

Ultimately, he envisions a series of steps to allow people to get from the Vera Katz Eastside Esplanade down the steep bank to the riverfront.

Cherishing history

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF WILLIE LEVENSON  - Willie Levenson and the Human Access Project are slowly converting this rock-strewn waterfront southeast of the Hawthorne Bridge into what he hopes will one day become Audrey Beach.Levenson has been in touch with Tom and Audrey McCall’s son Tad, who lives on the East Coast, and their grandson Tommy. He invited both to join the fourth-annual Big Float on July 27.

Levenson is learning how to navigate the murky waters of government red tape, and seems patient with the often cumbersome process. He’s also making allies.

“Will is a great connector,” says Siobhan Taylor, a Human Access Project board member and public affairs director of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde.

“Portland has been so disconnected from the river, yet we call ourselves a river city,” says Taylor, who supports Levenson’s dream of three public central-city beaches. “There is the opportunity there to give people on the east side and the west side access to their river and to do it in a way that is safe and welcoming.”

The confederation has more than 5,000 enrolled members, nearly 700 of them living in the Portland area, and it maintains an office in Southwest Portland. Those members are from river tribes, Taylor says, and they place a high value on being able to paddle and swim safely on their ancestral lands ceded to the United States.

“For tens of thousands of years, our bands and tribes that now make up the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde had permanent villages on both sides of the Willamette River,” she says, including Multnomahs and Chinooks at what’s now called Portland Harbor.

City less enthralled

Improving downtown’s connection to the waterfront is a key theme of the city’s emerging comprehensive land use plan. But the city parks department isn’t excited about public beaches downtown.

“We don’t think it’s a horrible idea,” says Portland Parks & Recreation Director Mike Abbaté. “We do know that the safety issues can’t be glossed over.”

It’s legal to swim in the Willamette, Abbaté notes, and the city doesn’t regulate it. But the parks bureau is reluctant to designate the downtown sites as swimming areas, as Levenson desires.

The Oregon Department of State Lands, not the city, owns most of the land near the river’s edge during the summer, says Mark Ross, parks bureau spokesman.

And having public beaches downtown might require changing rooms and bathrooms, parking and, perhaps, lifeguards, Abbaté says. It’s not a high priority for the bureau, he says, at a time when the parks budget is tight and many East Portland neighborhoods have no park space.

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF WILLIE LEVENSON  - A crew from Fred Devine Diving and Salvage Co. removes a 150-foot cable buried in the river bank southeast of the Hawthorne Bridge.  Next the company will remove a long dock partly buried in the muddy river bottom.And if the bureau designates the riverfront areas for swimming, Abbaté says, that would mean the city is assuring they are safe. He ticks off several reasons why he’d be “wary” of swimming at the downtown riverfront: water quality, motorized boat traffic on the river, strong currents, obstructions in the river bottom, conflicts with paddlers, and even hazards from floating logs.

However, the bureau has no problem with the Human Access Project’s plans to improve the path to Marquam Beach, Abbaté says, and probably will put up a sign there saying people are swimming at their own risk.

Scott Fogarty, a Human Access Project board member and executive director of Friends of Trees, is puzzled by the city’s stance. Promoting public access to the state’s iconic river could be a great economic benefit, Fogarty says. Most of the work has been done by volunteers, he says, providing a “low investment, high return” for the city.

“Other cities have access and don’t have lifeguarded or patrolled beaches.” Fogarty says. “I think there are ways around that.”

Levenson says he understands why the public beaches aren’t a high priority for Abbaté right now, and agrees. However, he disputes any notion that the water quality of the Willamette isn’t safe for swimming, citing studies by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and testing by the city’s own Bureau of Environmental Services.

In future years, Levenson predicts, as more people hang out and swim at the central city beaches, the city will come around and do what’s right.

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