Oregon's Long-Neglected Willamette Falls to Get Spectacular Makeover

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A recently announced design team is heading a revitalization project that will reintroduce the second most powerful waterfall in North America to the world. Renderings: (Snøhetta, Mayer/Reed, Dialog).

Ask anyone what the largest, most powerful waterfall in North America is and they’ll likely be able to give you the correct answer tout de suite:

Niagara Falls. (Technically, the correct answer is Horseshoe Falls as the Canada-straddling Niagara Falls consists of not one but a trio of waterfalls).

Ask some one what the second most powerful waterfall is in North America and you’ll likely get a blank stare.

You know, that really big one in, ummm...

The correct answer is Willamette Falls in Oregon City, a historic former trading outpost founded in 1829 by the Hudson’s Bay Company that’s located just a few miles south of Portland city limits near the confluence of the Clackamas and Willamette Rivers.

Wait, really?

An impressive 1,500 feet wide, Willamette Falls’ status as second most powerful waterfall in North America (and the largest in the Pacific Northwest by volume) has been vastly overlooked for decades because, well, the area around it ain’t so pretty. Postcard-perfect Multnomah Falls, just one of several spectacular waterfalls found within the Columbia River Gorge, largely gets most of the attention in the region and for good reason — it’s absolutely breathtaking as is the area around it.

Willamette Falls Oregon City
Willamette Falls, in Oregon City, Oregon, is the place where the Oregon Trail Ends. (Photo: Ian Sane [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

While mighty, the horseshoe-shaped Willamette Falls isn’t nearly as photogenic as its brethren due largely to the heavy industry built up directly around it including an active hydroelectric facility and a now-abandoned paper mill that, for decades, was a significant source of pollution along the falls. A fusion of scenic natural beauty and industrial decay, Willamette Falls is strikingly beautiful but in a decidedly less traditional manner. It’s more haunting than anything else.

Willamette Falls, the historic terminus of the Oregon Trail and home to the one of the oldest multi-lift lock and canal systems in the United States, has also, for decades, been largely off limits to non-hard hat-wearing visitors. While there are roadside viewpoints in the area, the most intimate way to experience the falls has traditionally been by tour boat.

That’s all about to change, however, with an ambitious redevelopment and revitalization plan dubbed the Willamette Falls Legacy Project that will open up the falls to the public after over a century of inaccessibility and unchecked environmental degradation.

Willamette Falls in Oregon City with ruins of Blue Heron paper mill
Willamette Falls, with the ruins of Blue Heron paper mill in the foreground. (Photo: Sam Bebee [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

The centerpiece of the scheme is the Willamette Falls Riverwalk, an ambitious adaptive reuse project that will usher in the transformation of an abandoned 23-acre industrial site into a world-class attraction sure to give those attention-grabbing Columbia River Gorge waterfalls a run for their money.

In a marriage of scenic beauty and industrial reclamation, the ruins of Oregon City’s derelict Blue Heron Mill will remain standing and be incorporated into the project. Working alongside local partners Dialog and Mayer/Reed, Norwegian firm Snøhetta is heading up the design after being selected for the task via international competition.

The team selection was made official earlier this month by Oregon Governor Kate Brown at a ceremony held at the falls.

“We think this will become an attraction that people from all over Oregon — and all over the world — will come to see," remarked Noah Siegel, manager of the Regional Infrastructure Supporting Our Economy initiative headed regional governmental entity Metro. "The integrated habitat and architecture just made us sing. They [the winning design team] thought about bird habitat and fish habitat. They thought about seasonal changes on the river, that the riverwalk should be durable to flooding. They're a truly integrated team that represented the core values of economic development, habitat, historical and cultural preservation and public access to the falls. This was the team that captured it the best.”

Design rendering of the Willamette Falls Riverwalk, Oregon City

Rendering: Snøhetta, Mayer/Reed, Dialog

As noted by the Oregonian, Mayer/Reed and Snøhetta are also collaborating on Portland’s James Beard Public Market.

“The project has the potential to create a new public space that will allow people to experience the falls in a totally new way, to be able to hear the sounds and feel the spray of the water on your skin,” Michelle Delk, landscape director of Snøhetta, told Dezeen. "I envision great opportunities to reuse the buildings but also to re-establish habitat and create a more naturalised water's edge.”

The design team’s approach showed the falls and the complex material layers of the site as a portal to the Northwest’s collective history. The site’s strata tells the story of deep geology, dynamic hydrology, and vibrant ecology, together forming the spirit of place. It tells the story of Native Americans who first understood the site’s promise, fishing its waters and building deep tradition, as well as that of European immigrants who claimed Oregon City, carving out a grid and building settlements. It tells the story of workers and industrialists who ground flour, drove timber, spun wool, milled paper, and generated electricity. It will tell the story of you — the public — who will help lay down the next historic layer - an experiential riverwalk, foretelling a story of renewed economy, environmental sensitivity, and historic importance.

Aside from bringing visitors closer to Willamette Falls via a design that “transports visitors deep into history and highlights its ephemeral qualities," the redevelopment also aims to give downtown Oregon City, strategically located adjacent to the falls, a much-needed economic boost.

Says Metro Councilor Carlotta Colette of the redevelopment project, which would be positioned directly at the foot of Oregon City’s Main Street: “This is the first step in rediscovering one of Oregon’s most beautiful and significant places. We are going to allow people to see Willamette Falls in a way they haven’t been able to experience it for more than a century and create housing, jobs and public spaces at the same time.”

A timeline for the Willamette Falls Riverwalk has yet to be ironed out although project’s design team will spend the next 18 moths finalizing the design via an extensive public engagement process. The Willamette Falls Legacy Project — a partnership between Oregon City, the State of Oregon, Metro, Clackamas County and the private owner of the industrial site — has secured a budget of $10 million for the first phase of this exciting rejuvenation of a majestic natural wonder.

It’s worth noting that Willamette Falls is also home to a curious feature that will be incorporated into the redevelopment scheme: a neighborhood-linking, observation deck-topped elevator that stands as the only outdoor municipal elevator in the U.S. The Oregon City Municipal Elevator, completed in 1955 to replace an earlier hydroelectric-powered wooden lift, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.

Via [Dezeen], [OregonLive.com]