Oregon City Willamette Falls walkway construction budget balloons
Estimates showing that building a public walkway to Willamette Falls will be more expensive than an initial projection from architects puts pressure on Metro voters to approve a November bond measure that would provide funding to fill a budget shortfall for the project in Oregon City.
Metro has said it would allocate $20 million to the riverside walkway past a paper mill that declared bankruptcy in 2011 if voters approve the $475 million parks-and-natural-areas bond. Latest budget estimates show this allocation would fill the funding shortfall for constructing the project's first phase.
Metro Councilor Christine Lewis, who represents Clackamas County citizens at the regional governmental agency, encouraged voters throughout the region to support the measure that would fund various projects seen as having potentially statewide significance. This measure will appear on the November ballot for voters throughout the Portland metro area to consider maintaining the current property-tax rate of 19 cents per $1,000 of assessed value for developing public parks and natural areas.
"It's absolutely critical that we pass that bond measure, and it's our expectation that the $20 million will be leveraged to meet the full needs of the project," Lewis said.
As the Willamette Falls Legacy Project moves forward with the riverwalk design and engineering, current estimates by Otak and Lease Crutcher Lewis indicate that the cost to build the first phase could be between $17 million and $33 million, depending on the scope and scale decided upon for the current phase. That entire range is significantly more than the $12.5 million budgeted over three years ago, prior to the development of any designs.
Project partners — Oregon City, Clackamas County, Metro and the state of Oregon — hope that the public walkway will spur the development of the shuttered paper-mill site and other areas throughout the city. For years prior to last month's meeting of project partners announcing the latest budget figures, Lewis had expected that the initial budget would not be sufficient.
"This is the first time we're getting a reality check," she said. "When you think about the cost escalation in the Portland area in terms of construction costs, there are no surprises here."
During a July 31 meeting of the project partners, there was consensus on having Metro's team move forward with developing the designs for a range of scenarios exploring estimated construction costs between the $17 million estimated by Otak and the $33 million estimated by Lease Crutcher Lewis.
Willamette Falls Legacy Project Manager Brian Moore said that $33 million may provide closer to the full scope of what was considered for the first construction phase with a temporary bridge creating public access through the upper yard. He said a scaled-back version would be working to retain a prominent view of the falls from the Mill H viewpoint area.
"What we're trying to balance is our ability to trim the scope without going back on our promises to the community," he said.
There are no cost estimates yet for future phases of the project planning a public courtyard area in the upper yard and pathways out to viewpoints closer to the falls. Even when the public walkway is fully built, Moore said there will have to be guided tours to the Station A platform closest to the falls, since there are safety concerns with the so-called "dance floor" crossing Portland General Electric equipment.
Moore said estimates are still being refined and a final cost for the project's first phase won't be known until next year. By the end of September, Metro's work on the project is expected to result in refined architectural drawings and some more accurate numbers as to what is possible within the budget.
Lewis encouraged voters to support November's bond measure that will significantly expand options for the project aiming to bring visitors closer to North America's second largest-volume waterfall.
"That vote of support helps us go to other funders," she said. "The point of the phasing is you can do some work right away in terms of creating access to the falls."
Decision points coming
About three years ago, prior to developing designs with input from the community, international architecture firm Snøhetta projected construction costs to be $12.6 million for the first phase, roughly the amount available for construction within the project's $25 million Phase 1 budget. That budget includes $1.2 million from Oregon City, $5.1 million from Metro, $12.5 million from the state, about $500,000 from Clackamas County and the property owner, and $6 million fundraised by Willamette Falls Trust, a nonprofit working to support the vision at Willamette Falls.
The team will continue to refine the design and cost estimates to allow the project's partner group to consider options that include reducing the scale of Phase 1, closing the funding gap or some combination of the two.
Toward the end of the July 31 meeting, Oregon City Manager Tony Konkol brought up the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde's plans to purchase the paper-mill property from current owner George Heidgerken, and Moore provided an update on this topic. As previously reported, the tribes are under contract to purchase the property and are currently in their due diligence process.
Moore said that the tribes are working with Metro's riverwalk project team to explore their separate interests and identify shared interests. Interpretive signage is planned along the walkway intended to teach visitors about the history of Willamette Falls, from its importance to Native American residents to its role in the founding of the Oregon Territory.
"The tribe has expressed support for the riverwalk and interest in having private development on the site," Moore said. "The project team will continue working with them with a goal of drafting an agreement determining a working relationship."
Moore noted that the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde is different than a typical developer or private owner, because they are a sovereign nation and government entity themselves.
"The team has acknowledged that difference and is working through what that means regarding the future partnership," he said. "The team hopes for an outcome that strengthens the partnership and provides certainty and clarity on all of the project's four core values."
State Rep. Mark Meek recalled the past issues obtaining permit-application signatures from Heidgerken and asked about upcoming permit timelines. Moore explained that the team anticipates the need for signatures and will need some confirmation of continued support from the property owner, when and if the property changes hands. The project would require the tribe's signature for a permit application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Moore anticipates that the tribes will need to sign permit applications at the end of August to early September 2019 and in late winter 2020 for the Corps, and then for building permits in early to mid-spring 2020.
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