Willamette Falls Riverwalk Moving Forward Despite Adversity

Willamette Falls, between Oregon City and West Linn, is the second-largest waterfall in the U.S. by volume. Home of the nation’s first hydroelectric project in 1888, the falls have largely been cut off from public view since then by industrial development, including the former 23-acre Blue Heron paper mill on the river’s edge in Oregon City.

A coalition of local governments led by Metro aim to change that with an ambitious public Riverwalk on the east bank of the falls. With a budget of $25 million, half of it coming from state sources, designers envision the Riverwalk as a public walkway through the Blue Heron site and across PGE’s operating hydroelectric dam to a viewpoint on the falls’ edge. The walkway would include public space for events like craft fairs or a farmer’s market. The Blue Heron site would then be redeveloped with commercial and residential uses centered on the Riverwalk pursuant to a master plan originally approved by the City of Oregon City in 2014.

This complicated project has faced delicate challenges from the beginning. Initially, things went smoothly and in 2015, Metro successfully negotiated easements for the Riverwalk from both PGE and George Heidgerken, a Tacoma-based developer who purchased the Blue Heron site at a bankruptcy auction in 2014. The easements sought to balance Metro’s vision for a public gathering place with PGE’s operational and safety concerns for its dam, and with Heidgerken’s vision for economic redevelopment of the Blue Heron site.

But recently, disagreements have arisen between Heidgerken and Metro as the project has moved into the design phase. Specifically, Heidgerken accuses Metro of deemphasizing economic redevelopment of the Blue Heron site, and Metro responds that the design has been modified repeatedly to accommodate his concerns. Heidgerken has refused to sign necessary applications and skipped a required contribution toward design costs, and the resulting delay has created a risk that Metro will have to return $5 million in state funding. Unable to resolve these differences privately, Metro went public about the dispute, hoping to marshal public pressure on Heidgerken to keep the project moving. Metro also intends to release an updated master plan for public comment prior to final review at the Metro Council’s January 4, 2018 meeting.

Since the days of candles and horse-drawn trolleys, Oregonians have lived their lives without any real access to the powerful waterfall that made the region’s early growth possible. The Riverwalk would reconnect the public with a site of such historic importance and physical beauty, ending the falls’ 130-year isolation. At the same time, the Riverwalk could unlock redevelopment of the hopelessly-derelict Blue Heron site and create an attractive and energized waterfront for Oregon City for the first time in generations, hopefully spurring modernization of the West Linn side of the falls also. The parties and the public should find a way through their disputes and not let this opportunity pass by.