Rediscovering Willamette Falls: Oregon City's big development opportunity

Rediscovering Willamette Falls: Oregon City's big development opportunity

All is quiet at the Blue Heron Paper Mill site, on the Oregon City side of Willamette Falls.

It stands in stark contrast to the loud hum coming from the West Linn Paper Company across the river.

The Blue Heron mill won’t be coming back to life. It went out of business, filed for bankruptcy and its tools and other equipment have largely been hauled off.

Behind the scenes: Take a look at the vast Blue Heron site

Blue Heron’s 23-acre site, however, is an entirely different story.

For the first time in modern history, Oregon has a chance to provide public access to Willamette Falls, a 1,700-foot wide waterfall with a 42-foot drop.

Willamette Falls is the second largest waterfall by volume in North America, according to the World Waterfall Database.

Niagara Falls, nearly 4,000 feet wide with a 167-foot drop, is the first. Celilo Falls on the Columbia River was the largest until it was submerged behind The Dalles dam in 1957.

Blue Heron has been in the news recently as officials working on the bankruptcy and the reclamation project reached several critical turning points.

First, the trustee overseeing the liquidation under Chapter 7 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code announced a $4.1 million purchase agreement with Irvine, Calif.-based Eclipse Development Group LLC. The mixed-use developer has a history of taking on challenging sites and has said it wants to provide public access. The deal is subject to due diligence and an auction where it could be out-bid.

The Oregon Legislature earmarked $5 million to help set the stage at Blue Heron to ensure that the public is finally able to access Willamette Falls.

And last, Oregon City launched a website to promote the Willamette Falls Legacy Project.

This week, more than a dozen Portland-area officials, including suburban mayors, visited Blue Heron for an after hours tour that highlighted just how big the challenge is.

Blue Heron has more than 50 buildings. The paper mill buildings in some places sit atop the stone foundations of a woolen mill that occupied the property (and reportedly employed 500) until it failed in the Great Depression.

Paper mill operators built new buildings, strengthened others and generally treated the site like the industrial property it was, creating facilities as needed.

The result is a mishmash of historically important buildings and uninteresting shacks, much of it sitting over a vast below-grade underworld that supported the weight of heavy machinery and infrastructure.

Metro, the regional government, has invested more than $500,000 studying the environmental and engineering challenges at the site. Oregon City is taking the lead on the redevelopment, but various state agencies — transportation, environment, energy, historic preservation — will be involved.

Oregon City kicks off its planning process with a Main Street festival on July 27. City officials will cut the ribbon on the Blue Heron redevelopment project at 6:45 p.m.

Here's a photo gallery of inside the gates of Blue Heron.

Portland Business Journal is a KATU News partner.

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