City leaders seem on track with 23-acre property's developer

by: PHOTO BY: COREY BUCHANAN - If the redevelopment plan comes to fruition, Willamette Falls will be complemented by a much different, and more bike-friendly, landscape. Oregon City’s Legacy Project coordinators envision a return to prominence for the once prosperous, but now downtrodden 23-acre industrial site accompanied by the PGE dam along the Willamette Falls.

Currently, the site is off the beaten path and a symbol of yesteryear, but during much of the 19th and 20th centuries, it was a cornerstone of the city.

“This was the original downtown of Oregon City,” OC Community Development Director Tony Konkol said.

In the 1800s, the site was instrumental for Oregon City industries, serving as its chief energy source.

“We had an abundant resource of electricity. If you can’t store it, you might as well use it,” Konkol said.

The site also produced the first long-distance electrical transmission in the nation.

“The industrialization of the West started here,” Konkol said.

Until Pendleton took over the industry, the Oregon City Woolen Mill was the largest producer of wool in the nation. Along with the woolen mill, the site was packed with a lumber mill, sawmill, flour mill and brick operation.

After multiple companies bought and sold the site, Blue Heron Paper Co. wound up with it in 2000.

However, the site’s implosion and Blue Heron’s bankruptcy came to a head in 2011, forcing 175 workers into unemployment and ceasing industrial productivity at the site for the first time since 1829.

by: PHOTO BY: COREY BUCHANAN - While the industrial site was once a bastion for economic productivity along an extension of Main Street, it's now a lonely wasteland.

In 2014, the 50-some buildings are bare, appear to be eroding, and are plastered with red marked signs signaling “danger” or “trespassing.”

The project’s Framework Master Plan outlines points of emphasis including public access, economic redevelopment, habitat health, and historic and cultural interpretation.

As far as public access is concerned, the project coordinators envision a river walk from Highway 99E to the PGE dam, replacing rundown trolley tracks with a modern bike and pedestrian path.

“We want to build a world-class public access way,” Konkol said.

In order to sponsor economic interest, the area would change from an industrial zone to a mixed-use zone allowing for commercial, residential and employment use.

For example, Konkol imagines an open area that used to be a grotto as a future public garden, restaurant or retail store.

They hope the renovations will vault the site’s value.

“We want to build a catalytic project that can change property value,” Konkol said.

City Manager David Frasher thinks the renovations will attract waves of tourists.

It will bring thousands of new visitors every year to see the falls,” he said.

The city also hopes to transform Willamette Falls into a respite for traveling fish.

“We want to provide a rest area for migratory fish before they take their next jump up the river,” Konkol said.

They also want to re-establish the shoreline, which has been altered by industrial structures, and supply a corridor for migrating birds by providing greater access to the Willamette Falls outcroppings. Plus, it is hoped water quality will improve through the use of tail races to increase water circulation.

Finally, the plan doesn’t want to demolish any trace of the historic site, but rather, use the grounds as a learning center for the site’s remarkable history.

“One of the challenges is how we can incorporate these historic buildings into redevelopment,” Konkol said.

In April, the property was sold to Tacoma developer George Heidgerken for $2.2 million. The sale was met with criticism because of Heidgerken’s run-in with the law in 1993, when he faced charges for illegal storage and transportation of hazardous material.

“I can just assess the owner with the interactions we have had with him, and those have all been positive,” Frasher said.

The project’s partners are in the midst of negotiations with Heidgerken. Konkol says they’ve achieved major progress. Still, the plan is far from a done deal.

“We still need the owner and jurisdiction on board,” Konkol said. However, “we’re on the same page with the owner.”

Oregon City, Portland, Clackamas County and the state of Oregon are partners in the current project. So far, the state has contributed $5 million.

“That money is used to leverage other dollars,” Konkol said.

Frasher said the project’s cost is still up in the air.

“Until the plan is more refined, we don’t have any estimates,” he said.

However, both Frasher and Konkol think the city and the owner will come to an agreement by the end of the summer or the beginning of fall.

Konkol is excited for what lies ahead.

“Hopefully, it will be a place people want to go again, and again and again.”

by: PHOTO BY: COREY BUCHANAN - Legacy Project coordinators hope to attract customer-service-oriented companies as well as manufacturers to the site that was once the center of Oregon City.

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