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The Willamette Falls look great, but it will be a while before they're ready for the public

The Willamette Falls Legacy Project had a significant change in summer 2019 when the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde purchased the mill site from the Vancouver developer who had been holding on to it.

For a while, a public path was going to run through the Blue Heron paper mill, which closed in 2011.

PMG: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Willamette Falls, Oregon City. Future tourist attraction?

Now the path is expected to turn west and run along the riverfront with a broad view of the Willamette Falls Paper Company mill on the West Linn bank of the river. Instead of running along Main Street, which still has train tracks, the tourist path would go over new footbridges until it stops at a three-story observation tower, beside the current tallest building at the south end. Ultimately, several phases in the future, the path would extend along the Portland General Electric dam to a point overlooking the roaring waters of the falls.

The tribes have their design team led by GBD Architects and Walker Macy. All the stakeholders will meet in the first week of April 2020 to see the plans, if they are ready, and, more importantly, to hear the new cost estimates.


The falls are impressive up close, the second-largest waterfall in the United States by volume of water, after Niagara Falls. If there were parking, they could be a close rival to the money maker of the Columbia River Gorge, Multnomah Falls. However, the falls have a couple of problems.

The falls face mostly sideways, and they are hard to see from the banks. On the West Linn side, there's a paper mill in the way, or if you are on the freeway, treetops. On the Oregon City side, 60-foot basalt cliffs, Highway 99E, and a freight railroad make it tricky to get a good selfie. The best place is along the dam, which already ends in a makeshift viewing point, just yards above the white water. In summer, they are mellower, and paddlers are kept back from the 42-foot drop by a floating boom.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: ADAM WICKHAM  - Andrew Mason, the Executive Director of Willamette Falls Trust, the nonprofit organization that raises resources and advocates for the revitalization of the site, leading a tour of the site. In the background is West Linn's active-again Willamette Falls Paper Company.

Andrew Mason is the executive director of Willamette Falls Trust, the nonprofit organization that raises resources and advocates for the revitalization of the 22.5-acre site.

He recently led a tour of the site and began by giving one of the longest indigenous land acknowledgments you could hear in the Portland area, including the sentence, "We certainly commit ourselves to countering systemic oppression here at this site where all people from all backgrounds are welcome."

Ultimately, Metro wants to run its easement through the area as a public park, making it available to all.

Mason asked rhetorically, "How do you do that in a safe way in an interesting way, and take advantage of all the interpretive opportunities that we've got along the way here?"

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: ADAM WICKHAM  - Looking south to Willamette Falls in Oregon City. The West Linn bank (right)  is home to w working paper mill and PGE hydro plant.

Local history

The walk is a mixture of wildlife spotting (a raptor circled a seagull, at 200 feet, and a large brown sea lion frolicked 100 yards downriver from the falls) and industrial history lesson. The scale of the Blue Heron mill is grand, and Mason envisages an interpretive center on the site of the smaller, original woolen mill, which survived until 1982 — fragments of whose 1864 masonry still stand. Soldiers used the Oregon City wool blankets in World War I, and when the company went out of business, some of its designs were bought by Pendleton Woolen Mills. That's the type of history that may be retold on this spot.

In the middle of the development, there will be a public square or yard — currently home to some large concrete defenses that look like EverBlock toys — that could be used for summer concerts and public gatherings.

"It's a regional living room," Mason added. "This space is about the size of Pioneer Courthouse Square."

The Trust envisages commercial spaces too. "Spaces that allow you to enjoy a hot beverage on a cold day and a cold beverage on a hot day, and event spaces where Oregon City can have things like its car show or its brewer fest, but also cultural events," Mason said.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: ADAM WICKHAM  - Walking down Main Street to the Willamette Falls in Oregon City, on the site of the disused Blue Heron paper mill.

Army Corps

There are lots of stakeholders to coordinate.

"There's a railway right here that has 28 trains a day, a state right of way, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission cares about what happens on the dam, and the Army Corps of Engineers cares about what happens over the river," Mason said.

Another issue is the likelihood of flooding. In 1964 and 1996, the water level was above head height for where tourists would stand as they gazed west at the river.

He said when the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde purchased the site, it created an excellent opportunity to pause.

"Where we had a very challenging landowner before, who was largely holding onto the property...Now with the tribes, we suddenly have a willing partner with a vision with resources. And so, it's an exciting opportunity, but it also is requiring us to rethink what our timelines are."

Mason says there's an asterisk by the design plans right now because they can change.

"That's very exciting, although it's taking a little bit longer than we anticipated. But from a fundraising perspective, it's nice that we've got a little bit more time."

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: ADAM WICKHAM  - Looking south to Willamette Falls in Oregon City, along the route of a prposed riverwalk and public park. The white spray in the center left of the photo marks the falls, which are the second largest in the US by volume after Niagara.

50 acres

The time when the paper mills were briefly both closed, between 2017 and 2019, was "a stunning development, representing 50 acres of land surrounding the North American continent's second-largest waterfall. It was a stunning opportunity to do something valuable while the window was open."

He describes a lot of the lagoons in the area as "Kermit the Frog green," meaning they'll cost money to clean up.

There's also the site of John McLoughlin's original house, the father of Oregon and namesake of the strip mall boulevard. The site has a disused concrete building on it. The actual house was preserved and moved up the hill, but he thinks McLoughlin could be commemorated here, too.

"It speaks to the opportunities, where I think our values have gotten a little bit distorted. But there's an opportunity to talk about history, and it has a very checkered past in terms of some of the events that occurred in the house. A lot of the stories that occurred on the site are very, very relevant to what is happening today."

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: ADAM WICKHAM  - Looking north from Willamette Falls in Oregon City. The tour continued south along the edge of PGE's dam to within yards of the dramatic falls, but getting the public out there would require a lot more design and construction work, as well as buy-in from multiple stakeholders.


You can still see the old turbines built in 1893, big-riveted, steampunk creations that supplied electricity to streetcars in Portland. Mason says that PGE calls them "the first long distance power transmission in the known universe."

Today, during low-flow summers, rubber bladders rise between some or the rocks on the edge of the falls to focus the water through a narrower path and generate more electricity.

The MASS Design Group is also working on the riverwalk. It worked in Kigali, Rwanda to bring together the warring tribes of the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s. "They did terrific work and as a result, started then working with a group called the equity and justice initiative in Montgomery, Alabama and built the Peace and Justice Memorial. The architect of record on that project is working with us here on this project, Justin Brown with the MASS Design Group, which is the largest nonprofit design firm in the world."

They see a healing opportunity and tell the story if the indigenous people.

"The original concept plan was done by Snøhetta. MASS Design Group has been brought in to help elevate the missing voices in the story. We felt like we hadn't done an adequate job of tribal engagement and we still believe we haven't. This is a place of reverence."

Four tribes were interested when Metro put the word out about new ownership. "We continue to recognize that it's not just a matter of signing off on plans we want." He hopes for a much deeper engagement by the tribes.

"It's always been here, it shouldn't belong to anybody, we all own it. We should all have the opportunity to come wipe the spray off our glasses."

Mason says "The next step for Willamette Falls Trust is to continue to wait for the design to take shape. So that we have a clear sense of a project and an outcome that we can then ask the community to support it. Community ownership is critical. What's so interesting about this project is that it has national implications, and it needs to authentically represent the uniqueness of Oregon City at the same time and the Portland metro region. How do you both represent the small-town values of a city the size of Oregon City at the same time position Willamette Falls with the stature and reverence that it calls for? So, it has both the feel of a city park and the amenities and stature of an international destination?"


Mason says the easement for public access was good for business. "I think it was a win-win in the sense that it allowed public access. It included a payment from the landowner to help support the operations of the Riverwalk. So, we invest public money and private philanthropy to help develop portions of the site, and you're adding millions of dollars of value to that land. From the standpoint of a landowner, I could see how it would make sense. It would create activity on the site. You're bringing lots of people on, you want people there if you're able to create economic activity."

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: ADAM WICKHAM  - Andrew Mason, the Executive Director of Willamette Falls Trust, the nonprofit organization that raises resources and advocates for the revitalization of the site, leading a tour of the site.

The Falls is in an Opportunity Zone, so it could attract investors. The rest of the site could also have development on it, including housing, industrial or office.

To get all eight phases of the Riverwalk done it could easily take more than a decade. And beyond that? "It's a big site, and I feel like some of the region's best developers have said 'Look it could be half a billion dollars of development on this site,' and I don't know how long that stuff takes.

"Is it hotels? Is it housing? We're right on the edge of the urban growth boundary, there's an enormous opportunity to be able to do affordable housing, but you got to have access and parking and all those nice things. I mean, it's just an extremely complicated equation."

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: ADAM WICKHAM  - On the PGE dam looking North away from Willamette Falls in Oregon City. There are plans to build a tourist-friendly riverwalk and public square on former industrial site, now owned by the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde.


The Willamette Falls Legacy Project is a Public Partnership including Metro, the city of Oregon City, Clackamas County and the state of Oregon. The partners are now developing new government-to-government relationships with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, who purchased the mill site in 2019.

A years-long design process led by Norwegian firm Snøhetta and including Mayer/Reed and Canadian firm DIALOG, resulted in concept plans for a riverwalk passing through the shuttered mill site, with some of the former industrial buildings being transformed and incorporated into the design.

Legacy Project staff began working last year with design and engineering firm Otak Inc. and contractor Lease Crutcher Lewis to rein in the project cost. Snøhetta projected that its designs for the first phase would cost $12.6 million to build, but estimates last year by Otak and Lease Crutcher Lewis pegged the price tag at between $17 million and $33 million.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: ADAM WICKHAM  - Site of a possible public square for cultural events, looking south Willamette Falls in Oregon City. The former industrial site is now owned by the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde.

"The $33 million estimate included the full plan for phase one. At $17 million, phase one would be significantly reduced," Brian Moore, Willamette Falls legacy project manager with Metro, Parks & Nature, told the Business Tribune.

The project was delayed in 2019 pending design alternatives after the cost estimates revealed that available funding would be insufficient to cover the scope of work. Stakeholders also went back to the drawing board, at the Tribes' request, to explore routing visitors along the river as they enter the riverwalk instead of through the former Blue Heron paper mill site.

The project's construction budget for the first phase of the riverwalk is $12.5 million.

Moore said that if the partners decide on a phase-one design over the budget of $12.5 million the Trust and Partners will have to fundraise to close the gap — $5 million to $20 million. Metro has committed $20 million to help complete the entre vision.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: ADAM WICKHAM  - A three story observation tower is proposed for this spot, the site of the current tallest building.

The tribes have hired GBD and Walker Macy for new riverwalk design work that would allow visitors to enter the riverwalk up close to river.

The Tribes' design, hugging the river and using footbridges, has technical challenges. "I don't expect it will be cheaper," said Moore.

See The Willamette Falls Legacy Project's virtual reality walkthrough

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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