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New life for Oregon City historic mill site

Riverwalk project pegged as catalyst but money at issue


Photo Credit: COURTESY WALKER MACY - An artists rendering of the proposed Riverwalk along the former Blue Heron paper mill and overlooking Willamette Falls. Planners believe the approximately $30 million project is a necessary first step in redeveloping the area into a world-class destination.It’s the closest thing to Roman ruins the Northwest has — the site that marked the end of the Oregon Trail and the beginning of industrial life here. At the center of it all: the powerful Willamette Falls, the second-largest existing waterfall by volume in the nation.

These days, it is a restricted-access home to rubble and rust — the dilapidated buildings of the Blue Heron Paper Co. mill that closed in 2011, and dusty memories of the clapboard buildings that made up the original downtown Oregon City first settled by Dr. John McLoughlin in 1829.

But seeds of a revitalization effort begun three years ago by Oregon City, Metro, Clackamas County and the state are beginning to sprout. With the addition of a motivated buyer in May, the first Oregon City Planning Commission hearing is now set for Sept. 8 to rezone the area from industrial to mixed use.

It is the first step of a multi-year process that — if all goes as planned — is expected to transform the area into a world-class tourist attraction and a vibrant downtown hub worth up to $220 million while creating nearly 1,500 permanent jobs in the community.

Developer George Heidgerken, who paid $2.2 million cash for the property out of bankruptcy, said he is committed to the visions put forth in the government’s master plan he signed on July 16. While Heidgerken made a few changes to allow development closer to the water, but not in the floodplain, he and planners say they are largely on the same page.

“I don’t see any negative things on the project at all,” Heidgerken said.

Heidgerken had only good things to say about working with the many government entities involved.

“We’re cooperating 100 percent with them, because we like them. They’re doing the right stuff.”

Metro Councilor Carlotta Collette said that everyone from local naysayers all the way up to famously anti-Metro Clackamas County Chairman John Ludlow have been unusually cooperative in the effort to redevelop the site. Collette attributes this to the almost intoxicating quality of the falls.

“You feel the mist on your face and you think: ‘What can I do to make this happen?’”



The catalyst project

Heidgerken and government planners believe that the Riverwalk will be a catalyst towards redevelopment. The Riverwalk is a proposed half-mile, $30 million public promenade that would begin at Highway 99E and extend out to an overlook on the Portland General Electric dam. (See a video of the panoramic view at PortlandTribune.com).

“Once this pops, we think everything else will happen,” Collette said.

More than just a walkway, planners envision a wide waterfront promenade, with spurs into the shopping areas and even a shaded trail all the way to the small historic Canemah community south of Oregon City.

While some observers worried the new property owner might not want to give over so much land to the public, Heidgerken said the only concern he had was to ensure the easement is wide enough.

“You want plenty of room for everybody to enjoy it,” he said.

Though the site is 22-acres, most of it is undevelopable either because it is a street, a lagoon or in the 100-year floodplain. That is why planners see much of the waterfront land as open space, complemented by new retail, restaurants, residential units and light industrial businesses closer in.

“With a little bit of work and quite a bit of money, we can open this up,” Collette said.

‘Shotgun wedding’

Money and power are the sticking points for some on the Clackamas County commission, who feel that the $30 million price tag on the Riverwalk is too steep and worry about a lack of a voice in the plans for the site.

At a July 8 discussion updating the memorandum of agreement between the county and the other entities, Commissioner Paul Savas said he worried that $30 million was high enough to have political ramifications and didn’t want to give money for a project unless the county had an equal part in the decision-making.

“How was that worded? It was like: ‘Metro’s in the driver’s seat, Oregon City’s in the back seat and we’re locked in the trunk on the way to a shotgun wedding,’ ” Savas said.

The county has agreed to provide $100,000 towards lobbying the federal government for funding and towards aiding private economic development on the site. Soon Metro will need larger commitments to fund the $4 million design process for the Riverwalk.

“If we want to be partners — or a driving force — on $4 million, we better start identifying where the money will be (coming from),” said county chairman Ludlow.

The State of Oregon authorized $5 million towards the project, but the Governor’s Office is asking for at least a one-to-one match commitment in place by next March.

That match money could come from a variety of sources, including Metro’s Natural Areas bond, Metropolitan Transportation and Improvement Program funds, State of Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, Oregon City and the county, as well as private and nonprofit funds.

World-class destinations take time

On a recent site tour, Oregon City planner and project manager Christina Robertson-Gardiner said the idea is to stitch together Oregon City’s historic downtown to its current downtown and to bring back an Oregon landmark.

When people come to visit Portland and have their gotta-see spots, said Robertson-Gardiner, “we want to be on that top five list.”

To put together something like that will take time, said developer Heidgerken. He should know. His other project to renovate the Old Olympia Brewery in Tumwater, Wash., has been in planning stages since 2010. He also is still trying to clean up the Abitibi Paper Mill site on Puget Sound in Steliacoom, Wash., which he bought in 2013.

“A lot of these projects take time to get it done right,” Heidgerken said from his Tacoma office. The complexity of the Blue Heron site, with more than 50 buildings in various states of disrepair, likely means the process here will take years — if not decades — too.

But Metro councilor Collette said so far she is pleased with the progress, including the zoning change proposal and a master plan amended and signed in less than two months.

“We’re used to moving pretty fast,” Collette said, but Heidgerken and his team are “just blowing our staffs’ minds.”

Interested? Learn more or find out how to do a site tour at www.rediscoverthefalls.com.


Habitat restoration also a priority for Blue Heron site

In tandem with the Riverwalk project to create a promenade along the Willamette River to the falls, planners envision a habitat restoration effort that would rough up the artificially straight river banks, replace invasive species with natives, and circulate water through the now-stagnant Upper Basin, likely by flowing it through canals in the site.

“Restoring that habitat to the degree that we can is a really important value,” said Metro Councilor Carlotta Collette.

Real estate broker John McKay said he used to do inspections on the site decades ago and recalls the “horrible” chemicals and industrial byproducts.

“They pretty much just dumped everything into the river,” McKay said.

For better or for worse, that’s not really a lasting problem at the site. There is very little soil there; it is mostly concrete and basalt. During floods — for example, the record-breaking 1996 flood — everything washes downstream.

“In fact, it was so clean, the (Environmental Protection Agency) was worried they wouldn’t be able to help us,” Collette said.

The potential liability issues this poses were part of the reason the governments involved did not want to buy the property even though its $2.2 million price tag would have been a small percentage of the overall budget.

George Heidgerken’s Falls Legacy LLC is unlikely to have that problem because of its limited liability.

See more on the Willamette Falls Legacy Project’s habitat restoration efforts in the Aug. 14 edition of the Sustainable Life section.