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Public access secured to Willamette Falls

Blue Heron site developer, Metro, PGE agree on deal

Photo Credit: PHOTO COURTESY: METRO - Willamette Falls is the second most powerful waterfall in North America.As announced at the Metro Council meeting Dec. 11, new agreements with a private developer and Portland General Electric have secured permanent public access to Willamette Falls, the second most powerful waterfall in North America after Niagara Falls.

The agreements allow Metro and its partners in the Willamette Falls Legacy Project to continue moving forward with plans for a public riverwalk along the Willamette River at the former Blue Heron Paper Co. mill site in downtown Oregon City.

Local leaders hope the riverwalk will spur private development by drawing people to Willamette Falls. They plan to transform the site into a scenic destination and a vibrant neighborhood that blends homes, shops and businesses, with perhaps even a hotel or light industry.

“It will attract people not just from around the region, but it will attract people from around the country,” said Metro Councilor Carlotta Collette. “If we do it right, it might attract people from around the world.”

Site owner George Heidgerken is an engaged and committed private partner who shares the community’s vision for the property, Collette said.

“He sees the specialness of this site,” she said. “We were hoping we would get a partner like George who sees in this industrial site at the base of a waterfall what we see — a magical place that’s a game-changer for our region.”

The agreement with Falls Legacy, LLC, Heidgerken’s company, secures a 120-foot waterfront easement for the riverwalk. Heidgerken also committed to pay 20 percent of the design and preliminary engineering expenses — approximately $900,000 — and at least 20 percent of the future maintenance and operation expenses of the riverwalk.

Photo Credit: PHOTO COURTESY: METRO - George Heidgerken (left), the site owner, and Jim Desmond, director of Metro's Sustainability Center, shake hands after reaching the agreement securing public access to Willamette Falls.

Metro’s agreement with PGE will allow the riverwalk to be built across a portion of the utility’s dam along Willamette Falls to the spot offering the best close-up view of the falls. PGE operates a hydroelectric facility at the site, one of the oldest in the United States and an important energy source for the region.

“PGE is a proponent of economic development and working collaboratively with the communities we serve,” said Maria Pope, a senior vice president of PGE. “We recognize the importance of the beauty and history of the falls and are very supportive of the development and transformation that is envisioned.”

Both agreements were donated to Metro without cost to taxpayers.

The Willamette Falls Legacy Project is a collaboration among Metro, Oregon City, Clackamas County and the state of Oregon. The project aims to create an iconic place that honors the site’s history and culture, restores habitat, drives economic development, and opens to the public the beauty and grandeur of the falls.

The project started after Blue Heron Paper Co., the previous owner of the property, filed for bankruptcy in February 2011. When the mill shut down, the opportunity came to bring new life to a site that powered a booming industrial scene — and gave birth to the state.

“It’s a special place in Oregon,” Heidgerken said. “It’s one-of-a-kind. People are going to want to be there.”

Heidgerken envisions public art, fishing, kayaking, special events and waterfront shops, restaurants and homes at the mixed-use site.

“The riverwalk is key for the general public to get a real feel for what goes on down there,” he said. “This is going to be the first chance for the general public to be on site, and it’ll be a great introduction to what Willamette Falls is all about.”

The agreement with Metro also will ensure that the public riverwalk and private development move forward as part of an integrated plan for the overall site.

“It’s a win-win for both of us, and it’s a good deal,” he said. “More important than all of that, it’s the right thing to do.”

Project partners have completed initial planning work, culminating in Oregon City’s approval in November of the site’s master plan and land-use zone changes.

Photo Credit: IMAGE COURTESY: METRO - This map shows the relation of Willamette Falls to Oregon State Highway 99E (McLoughlin Boulevard), Interstate 205 and downtown Oregon City. West Linn is located across the river.

Metro currently is developing a request for proposals for a team to design and complete preliminary engineering work on the riverwalk. Once on board, that team is expected to take about 18 months to develop cost estimates and a plan for construction. The project partners already have secured $10 million for the first phase of construction, which will begin after design and engineering are completed and required permits are obtained.

A publicly accessible Willamette Falls will draw tourists to the first incorporated city west of the Rocky Mountains, said Oregon City Mayor Doug Neeley. Long a sacred fishing site for Native Americans, Willamette Falls also attracted John McLoughlin, “the father of Oregon,” who established a land claim there in 1829 and built the first lumber mill.

“The falls is, in fact, the basis of the existence of the city, so it’s a tremendous piece of our history and identity that’s tied to that site,” Neeley said. “This project is phenomenal.”

Photo Credit: IMAGE COURTESY: METRO - A graphic shows the areas around Willamette Falls where a riverwalk is planned through a development.

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