This story has been updated from its original version.
An industrial brownfield full of what seem to be decrepit structures leftover from an assortment of mills and utilities abandoned in 2011, has one asset that makes it a prime spot for redevelopment: a riverfront view of the nation's second most powerful waterfall.
Over the weekend, the long-anticipated final master plan for the Willamette Falls Legacy Project was revealed after nearly four years of conversations and concepts that decided what historical aspects to keep and what to demolish and replace with something new.
Oregon City Mayor Dan Holladay said he's seen the site go through "six years of economic loss," and is ready for an "entirely new place to live, work and play."
The next steps are finalizing construction drawings and land use approvals. The groundbreaking is slated for summer 2018, with a completion date of 2022.
The riverwalk is a long-term public-private partnership, expected to cost a total of $60 million for design, engineering and construction. So far, it's collected $19.5 million in initial funding.
Metro expects the riverwalk to become a catalyst for attracting private development, aiming to spur redevelopment of the whole property in a decades-long vision.
The 22-acre site, most well-known as the former Blue Heron paper mill, is privately owned by Falls Legacy LLC, purchased in 2014. Portland General Electric owns the dam on the site.
While more than 50 dilapidated buildings occupy the site, five have been chosen for rehabilitation in a project that will enhance views of and interactions with the nation's second-most powerful waterfall (Niagra Falls is the first), and a center of West Coast history.
Councilor Carlotta Collette, with Metro, said she remembers the business closing in 2011, and approaching Metro for the opportunity to redevelop the land publicly, calling the site the "heart of the West Coast."
This is the first redevelopment of a phenomenal site in 150 years, she said. "At (the mill's) peak, it had 2,000 jobs. When it closed there were 170. We want to restore jobs here and restore habitats."
Touring the ruins
Michelle Delk, principal with Snøhetta, pointed out some old boilers that were left in place when the site was stripped for recycling. In the old concrete, sheet metal and rebar, windows are smashed out, places where teens tagged graffiti mixes with red 'DANGER' and 'KEEP OUT' messages. Stone crumbles and native vegetation is already well on its way to creeping back.
"We envision to remove the exterior cladding and create public space between them," Delk said. "The view opens in the alcove, expanding a hanging overlook so you can look out to the river and down into the habitat."
There are layers to the warehouses: basements are three stories deep. Trolley tracks laid on now-rotten lumber crumble from the pavement, dropping straight down into the falls far below.
Collette added that they hope to peel away some of the concrete and allow the native salmon to swim more freely — something that is significant to local Native American tribes. One area is a "public yard, with a theater to the river. We want to have people be able to experience the river, it's our Pioneer Square."
When the EPA first came out, the representative was being kind about the site at first — until they led him around back and he saw the falls, where he nearly teared up, according to Collette.
"'We see this industrial stuff all over America, but there is no waterfall like this anywhere in America,'" Collette recalls him saying. The project did secure a grant from the EPA to clean up the brownfields.
"The Falls are so significant to the Tribes: salmon, power and spirit, that kind of creative energy," Collette said. "The Falls are one of the most powerful (of sites)."
Because of that, Metro is working to declare it a National Heritage site.
The Willamette Falls Legacy Project team has been meeting and engaging with the Oregon City community for nearly four years, spent just in the design phase.
"We were asking the public what they wanted to see and that led to the master plan, the way they got people to speak from the heart," Collette said. "We want this to be world-class, and that's the design team we put together."
Snøhetta is definitely in the world-class caliber. Other projects they've designed include the National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion, the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt.
Future plans out of history
"Our engineer, structural engineer and scientist with Metro understand what can be saved," Delk said. "The structures are really sound, they were built to last. They look dilapidated, but they have good bones and we'll stabilize things seismically."
Michelle Delk told the Business Tribune exclusively that she's thrilled about how the final master plan turned out.
"Through the process, everybody involved — the design team, the engagement with community — helped solidify the idea to save a lot of the existing structures tobring back vitality to the site," Delk told the Business Tribune. "There's excitement envisioning what that could be."
Delk said it was a process that took a lot of patience, "to learn about this place by uncovering and revealing what was here."
"We crawled all around and grounded in the idea we already have: to peel those layers back and enhance what's here, and strategically adding to provide opportunities," Delk said."This place is powerful, inspirational, overwhelming. We felt that immediately and became entranced by revealing and exploring, to learn from all those before us, what the community brought to the table and embraced the four core values."
The four guiding core values are historic and cultural interpretation, public access, healthy habitat and economic redevelopment.
"When people tell me about removing stuff, they're thrilled to repurpose the buildings for opportunities, public spaces, a play tower, an overlook, to reuse relic structures with new elements," Delk said. "We're strategically moving stuff to open up new views and habitats. I'm excited to create and really to build on the idea of reusing what's here."
The plans include an overlook at the old woolen mill. While the site is most well-known for the Blue Heron paper mill, there are also the ruins of the Imperial Flour Mill, saw mill and Oregon Woolen Mill at the industrial site, along with utilities including old boilers, a water filtration plant, a clarifier and some offices for the mills.
"The goals of the riverwalk are a weaving together of the riverwalk and development in places where you are out along the water's edge," Delk said. "The riverwalk and Main Street really come together."
There is no funding yet for the vertical playground, but it's included in the plans partly because Snohetta has done it before.
"We think they'll come here just to play, from a design standpoint," Collette said. "This is the closest thing to Roman ruins we have. We want it to capture the imagination of the public."
Transitioning to contractors
So far the project has collected $19.5 million from the State of Oregon, Oregon City, Metro and Clackamas County.
Brian Moore, Willamette Falls Legacy Project project manager, said there's no contractor chosen yet, but an RFP is planned to go out in two months.
First, the project has to go through permitting, which could take six to eight months, or up to a year. It needs local land use, federal and river work permits.
After the designs were so carefully laid out to preserve and reflect history, soon it will be up to the contractors to implement the renovation to the industrial remnants.
"The challenges are fairly practical and it's a largely surgical demolition more than anything," Moore told the Business Tribune. "Because of that, the challenges will reveal themselves as we go."
The plan is to use the CMGC model (construction manager/general contractor), which Metro also used at the Elephant Lands at the zoo.
"The project is completely reasonable," Moore said. "What we're proposing largely exists on site. We're coming back, reinforcing them and making it safe for the public."
The start date is slated for the summer of 2018, with a 2022 completion.
Willamette Falls Legacy Project
Site: Oregon City's former Blue Heron Paper Company location.
Web: WillametteFallsLegacy.org, RediscovertheFalls.com
Project manager: Metro
Owner: George Heidgerken, Falls Legacy LLC
Designers: Snøhetta, Mayer Reed
Funding: So far the project has collected $19.5 million from the State of Oregon, Oregon City, Metro and Clackamas County. The total cost is estimated at $60 million, with hope that once the demolition occurs private developers will take up an interest in the land.
The four public entities declined to buy the property because of the high risks: They said it would have been too much for a public project to take on, given that it is a brownfield and an expensive site to secure and to redevelop. An earlier version of this story was not consistent about the Willamette Falls site ownership information.