OC to approve zone change that would allow redevelopment on the industrial site -

With a zone-change ordinance scheduled to be finalized this Wednesday evening, and developer George Heidgerken’s speech before city leaders last week, the former Blue Heron paper mill seems on the cusp of a major overhaul.

Photo Credit: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - City and federal officials, including Tony Konkol and Congressman Kurt Schrader, from left, tour the Blue Heron property recently to look at public access opportunities.A massive plan to expand public access to Willamette Falls in Oregon City took its first step towards reality at the Oregon City Commission's first reading of the ordinance Oct. 15. A final reading is scheduled for Nov. 5.

Photo Credit: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - George Heidgerken addresses an Oregon City Business Alliance crowd of over 100 at the Abernethy Center on Oct. 28“This project has no limitations,” Heidgerken told the Oregon City Business Alliance crowd of over 100 at the Abernethy Center on Oct. 28. “There are locations on this site that will fit almost anything.”

Mayor Doug Neeley had to pause at one point during the Oct. 15 meeting to control his emotions, as the project seems to have paralleled his four-year tenure. Neeley, being term-limited, did not run for re-election.

“I was only serving as mayor for two months when the bankruptcy occurred, and that jolted us all,” Neeley said of the Blue Heron Paper Co.’s 2011 failure that left 175 people unemployed. “The opportunity to see something — a phoenix, if you will — coming from these ashes and to actually have an opportunity to vote on this particular master plan is extremely important to me.”

The Willamette Falls Legacy Project aims to revitalize the former paper mill at the southern tip of Oregon City’s downtown area. City Commission’s vote will re-zone the 23-acre property that's been an industrial site for more than 100 years. Future mixed uses could accommodate the wide range of development envisioned for the site, including residential, retail, business and office space.

“I think this is a big step,” said Commissioner Carol Pauli. “Like (Commissioner Rocky Smith, Jr.) said, I don’t think anybody ever thought that we would see this.”

The comprehensive master plan, vetted through more than three years of public process, passed the Planning Commission unanimously. The commissioners approved a resolution adopting the Willamette Falls Legacy Project’s visioning document and approved the first of two required readings of the zone change unanimously.

Oregon City planner Christina Robertson-Gardiner said the plan that emerged from a series of public meetings was virtually unchanged through scrutiny from lawyers, owners, planning commissioners and city commissioners.

“We just have a resounding support for this, on the Oregon City level, which I find very exciting,” she said.

Planners aim sights on Riverwalk

The design teams at Metro regional government, Oregon City and Heidgerken’s Willamette Falls, LLC, are busy preparing for the first phase of development at the site: a Riverwalk promenade allowing public access to one of the largest waterfalls in the world.

Jim Desmond, director of Metro’s Sustainability Center, said the next step is to put out a request for proposals for design and engineering of the proposed Riverwalk, a process that will put final figures on the rough $30 million estimate. Planners then hope to have a design approved by March 1 that various funders can get behind.

Robertson-Gardiner said the team is actively seeking a range of funding sources, including federal, state, local, private and philanthropic funds.

“We’re meeting-and-greeting a lot of people right now,” she said.

Heidgerken said that the project hinges on some public financing, much like his project he is developing at the 32-acre former Olympia brewery site in Tumwater. He and his project manager John Potter said that the easiest and cheapest thing to do would be to tear down all the remaining former Blue Heron buildings, but that would not be the right thing to do.

Photo Credit: CITY OF OC - Oregon City envisions a walkway so the public can view Willamette Falls."We intend to do the right thing," Heidgerken said.

Nor would it be financially prudent to create a soulless shopping mall, Heidgerken noted. While people might visit any new restaurant or shopping area once, he noted, they would be much more likely to patronize a historic development along the lines of Jake's Restaurant in Portland.

Desmond said government officials are working closely with the Tacoma-based property owner to integrate the design into what planners hope will be a bustling downtown core.

“We don’t want the walkway to exist in a vacuum of what he wants to do, obviously, and vice versa,” Desmond said.

Despite the excitement over this newest milestone, Desmond sees the process as still several years in the making.

“We’re a long way from anything that might look like a groundbreaking,” Desmond said.

Heidgerken agrees that the complex planning process will require a lot of "durability" and "flexibility" on the part of all the partners.

"You can't call all the shots, but you can figure out how they all fit in," he said.

He hopes to carry the vision forward as presented by local officials, a vision that put the project about five years ahead of the Tumwater site he bought in 2010.

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