One of the first questions that came to mind with the recent news that the former Blue Heron paper mill site in Oregon City was up for sale: What, exactly, will become of the riverwalk that’s been planned there for years? The one that public and private partners have been conjuring up for more than five years, that will cost more than $30 million and create public access to one of North America’s largest waterfalls for the first time in decades?
Thanks to an easement on the 23-acre site, the riverwalk will likely continue moving forward no matter who owns the property.
“That’s what’s enabled us to do everything that we’ve done so far,” said Andrew Mason, executive director of the Willamette Falls Trust, the nonprofit that's been coordinating some of the fundraising and partnerships that have fueled the effort thus far. “The easement is with the Willamette Falls Legacy Project and is in perpetuity.”
The issue rose to the surface recently when the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde made it known that it was in negotiations to acquire the site from its current owner, Tacoma developer George Heidgerken, who bought it for $2.2 million in 2014. The tribe is also looking to acquire another property about four miles upstream that includes more than a mile of waterfront along the Willamette River.
According to Mason, the easement, which was signed in 2014, covers a significant portion of the Blue Heron site — close to 50 percent of the 23 acres. That’s in part because the site will be a complicated one to develop thanks to its proximity to the falls, the scores of structures that still stand on the property and other factors.
“I think it’s just so complicated, so it made sense for the owner to say, ‘OK, let’s do an easement there,’” Mason said, adding that the easement serves almost as a development agreement that will guide how the site can be developed. Public partners will be mostly involved in creating public access to the falls via the riverwalk, while a private owner would be the party that could develop revenue-generating projects on parts of the property.
While the easement would transfer with the deed if the property changes hands, Mason said there is still a chance that it could be re-negotiated with the new owner. That could potentially tweak how development might unfold at the site, but Mason said he thinks the partners will have “good leverage with whoever the landowner is.”
As for the riverwalk itself, plans are moving ahead full steam whether the sale to the tribe goes through or not. The partners just signed a contract with MASS Design Group, a renowned nonprofit architecture and design firm that will focus on programming activities at the site.
Last month, the team also signed a contract with the general contractor Lease Crutcher Lewis. Construction drawings should hit 30 percent completion by this fall and construction on the first phase of the riverwalk is scheduled for next spring and should wrap up in 2022.
Mason noted that the first phase of the riverwalk will only provide access to about two-thirds of the way out to the falls, where an observation deck will be constructed. Future phases of the project would extend the riverwalk even farther, possibly out to the Portland General Electric dam that extends into the falls.
Mason also said the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, along with four other tribes, has been very involved in the planning process for the entire Willamette Falls area.
“We have been very aligned and working well together,” he said. “And we look forward to continue working with them.”
In a statement, tribal chairwoman Cheryle Kennedy said the tribe looks forward to working with all the partners should the deal to acquire the site be sealed.
“Should the Tribe purchase the property, we’re excited to work with Metro, as well as local, state and federal partners in a collaborative manner to shape the future of the property,” she said.