Willamette Falls Riverwalk will move forward even if site sells — Portland Business Journal

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.

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“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.

Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde sign sale agreement with Falls Legacy, LLC

Yesterday, we learned that the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde signed a purchase and sale agreement with Falls Legacy, LLC, the company that owns the land with the planned location of the future Willamette Falls Riverwalk. 

While the purchase is not yet final, here’s what’s happening at Willamette Falls:

  • The development of the Riverwalk can proceed even if there is a land sale. With a construction contractor signed, Riverwalk Phase 1 construction remains scheduled to begin in spring 2020, with completion in spring 2022.

  • The Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde have been a strong partner on the future first phase of the Riverwalk project, actively participating in the project’s Native American Advisory Board and engaging with programming and interpretation planning as the project has advanced.

  • This project has been strengthened by the participation of the tribes and tribal organizations active on the project – The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, The Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.

  • We remain committed to working closely with sovereign tribal governments to realize a new vision for Willamette Falls, alongside federal, state, regional and local governments and the local community.

We look forward to creating a place that centers the site’s cultural heritage and practices and creates opportunities for public access to Willamette Falls. Thank you for your continued support.

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Otak to take us one step closer to the Riverwalk!

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After reviewing many proposals, the Willamette Falls Legacy Project has chosen Otak to bring the world-class design of the Willamette Falls Riverwalk to life!

The local, award-winning design and engineering team will be leading a team that includes Mayer/Reed, Snøhetta, KPFF, Pacific Habitat Services, and others with their construction management expertise. Over the next three years, Otak will oversee the creation of safe and secure interim public access onto the former Blue Heron paper mill site, a prominent view of Willamette Falls, habitat restoration along the riverbank, and building demolition that will prepare the site for future phases. With only a year until construction is set to begin on phase one of the Riverwalk, you can see them now at the site preparing and developing a plan to get started!

To learn more about Otak and other projects they’ve worked on, you can visit their website here: https://www.otak.com/

Willamette Falls Trust Announces $7 million in Donations to Willamette Falls Riverwalk

Willamette Falls Trust—the key philanthropic and community engagement partner of the Riverwalk—is proud to announce $7 million in new gifts today, generously donated from two philanthropic families. Connie Ballmer, the co-founder of Ballmer Group, has donated $5 million towards the Riverwalk, and the Ann and Bill Swindells Charitable Trust has donated $2 million.

Ballmer grew up in Oregon City and worked at the Crown Zellerbach mill on the west side of Willamette Falls as a college student. She founded the Ballmer Group with her husband and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Based in Portland, Ore., the Ann and Bill Swindells Charitable Trust focuses on improving the quality of life for Oregonians, and seeks to sustain the state’s cultural, scientific and historical endeavors.

"It’s as if someone put a roof on the Grand Canyon and kept it hidden away for all these years,” said Connie Ballmer about the Falls. “It's time to lift the roof off Willamette Falls so that more Oregonians can experience this beautiful place. These kinds of projects don’t come along very often, so it’s an important moment for the region and state. I am delighted to lend support to Willamette Falls Trust and Oregon City’s beautiful waterfront.”

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The current plans for the Willamette Falls Riverwalk include repurposing one of the former mill buildings into a three-story structure which will provide visitors with an overlook of the falls and Willamette River, restored habitat and gathering spaces as well as historic and cultural interpretation of the site.

“These generous gifts buoy our efforts to complete the first phase of a world-class Riverwalk, demonstrating community and regional support of our plans to create a new experience at Willamette Falls that will give everyone new opportunities to explore the rich habitat, culture and history of this significant place,” said Alice Norris, Board Chair of Willamette Falls Trust.

The Willamette Falls Riverwalk is a public/private partnership, with government and nonprofit organizations working together to bring the project to life. Willamette Falls Trust works alongside the Willamette Falls Legacy Project, a four-government effort comprised of Oregon City, Clackamas County, Metro and the State of Oregon.

With a fundraising goal of $35 million for Phase One of the Riverwalk, $19.5 already contributed by the Willamette Falls Legacy Project partners, and this additional $7 million donated by individuals, the project has now raised more than 75% of the funds needed to meet the goal. A capital campaign to raise the remaining $8 million is currently underway.

Willamette Falls Riverwalk Plan Earns Honor Award from American Society of Landscape Architects

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At the 2018 American Society of Landscape Architects Awards, Snøhetta, Mayer/Reed and Dialog were recognized with an Honor Award in the Analysis and Planning Category for their work on the design of the Willamette Falls Riverwalk.

“Here we see the combining of public access, habitat, historic and cultural interpretation and economic development in a project that’s very tangible in terms of its potential to being implemented.” - 2018 ASLA Awards Selection Jury

Click here to learn more about the 2018 ASLA Awards.

Progress at Willamette Falls: A New Executive Director Leads Efforts at the Falls

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Andrew Mason has been selected as the first full-time executive director for Willamette Falls Trust, the nonprofit organization created to raise resources and advocate for the revitalization of the former Blue Heron paper mill site in Oregon City and the Riverwalk experience.

The Riverwalk will connect downtown Oregon City to Willamette Falls. It will create a world-class public space with views of Willamette Falls that have been hidden from the public for over a century.

Mason, who assumed his new role on April 2, 2018, has a strong background in fundraising, strategic planning, program development, and executive leadership. He has knowledge and experience in government relations, collaborative management, and a recent capital campaign. He has also successfully secured federal, state and local public and private sector funding. He most recently served as the executive director for Open School in Portland, OR.

Mason holds a Bachelor of Arts from Reed College and a Master of Social Work from Portland State University.

“I come to this project with a strong sense of its value to our community, state, and nation. Its success will take committed and unwavering investment from the entire region and an ability to leverage and extend our community connections and assets. I look forward to working with the Board and the many voices involved in visioning such a challenging and inspiring future for the Willamette Falls Legacy Project,” Mason shared.

The Willamette Falls Trust Board is comprised of volunteer leaders from business and industry, education, labor, civic and environmental organizations, and engaged citizens.

TrustBoard president Alice Norris expressed her appreciation for the groundwork laid by retiring executive director, Shelly Parini. “We have thrived under Shelly’s active leadership, with new communication materials, a strategic plan and a capital campaign plan. Andrew will help us build, execute and leverage our broad base of supporters and champions.”

Willamette Falls Riverwalk Master Plan Approved

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Willamette Falls Trust celebrated a major milestone on Friday, January 5, 2018, when Metro councilors gave their unanimous approval to the Willamette Falls Riverwalk master plan. The plan articulates the long-term vision that will guide development and public access at the former Blue Heron paper mill site in downtown Oregon City. Oregon City commissioners were expected to consider approving the master plan in February 2018.

The Riverwalk, trails, a public boat dock and other amenities will bring visitors up close to North America’s second most powerful waterfall, which has remained largely hidden behind industrial buildings for more than a century. The first phase of the Riverwalk is scheduled to open in 2022.

The Riverwalk will be built in phases. The first phase includes repurposing the boiler complex and Mill H buildings to provide upper and lower scenic overlooks. It would also provide for some restoration work, public gathering places and the demolition of some of the more than 50 buildings currently on-site to prepare for future developments.

Future phases will be planned in coordination with the private owners of the site and would depend on available funding. Improvements would include trails along the Portland General Electric dam to allow visitors even closer views of Willamette Falls with an overlook at the Hawley Powerhouse foundation site. Additional work would complete the signature public gathering place nicknamed “the public yard,” convert Mill O into a sheltered gathering spot, restore the historic shoreline to support native plants and fish, along with additional improvements.

OPB Explores the Falls

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In the summer of 2017, OPB explored Willamette Falls through an Oregon Field Guide segment and an article by Ian McCluskey. Both feature fascinating glimpses of the nature, history and culture surrounding the “Niagra of the West.”

The Portland Mercury also picked up the Oregon Field Guide segment featuring Willamette Falls. Check out all three stories below!

Oregon Field Guide: Willamette Falls by OPB

The Hidden World of Oregon’s Overlooked Falls by Ian McCluskey

Oregon Field Guide’s True Stories of Science and Adventure by Ned Lannamann