State of Wonder

Big Plans To Transform Portland's Waterfront And Willamette Falls

By Randy Gragg (OPB), Aaron Scott (OPB) and Julia Oppenheimer (OPB)
Portland, Oregon Nov. 23, 2016 9:13 p.m.

The creative firm behind such famous spaces as the Alexandria Library and the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has its eyes on Portland's waterfront, and there's good news and bad.

First, the bad: the James Beard Market Snohetta was set to design got booted from the Morrison Bridge site that folks were so excited about by the developer, Melvin Mark. This is at least the fifth time organizers have had to change sites in the past 17 years.


In good news, the partners behind Snohetta's other project, the Willamette Falls Riverwalk at the old Blue Heron Mill in Oregon City, have raised $19 million of $25 million for the first phase, and Snohetta is deep in the design process with the public. Plus, the firm has signed on for a third project: to design plans for OMSI’s 16 acres of riverfront property in the central eastside.

Snohetta’s team was recently in town to gather public feedback on their designs — a process that engaged several hundred participants, ranging from two former Oregon City mayors to arts advocates to kayaking enthusiasts.

“What we're really hoping is to hear people's ideas," said Snohetta's head of landscape, Michelle Delk. "To have them start dreaming with us about these moments we've identified, that we know have potential to really be meaningful transformations of the site and integrated into the Riverwalk."

Snohetta, teamed with local firm Mayer Reed, works a bit differently than most firms. Rather than present three designs and ask the public to put green dots on one, they show a few rough ideas for the area and then play games to glean impressions about how they can be further shaped.

The Riverwalk is not along pristine shores. It takes you over, under, through, and alongside years of accumulated industry. The participants honed in on some of the old mill’s most dramatic features, like a huge pipe chase — a 30-feet wide tunnel, really. They invited people to weigh in: do you want to walk on top of it, punch some openings in it so you can walk through it and see the river, or make it disappear entirely in favor of fish habitat.

There was also a big public plaza and a giant clarifier, and they had people pick cards representing what they wanted to do in them and how they wanted them feel — movie theater, play space, natural habitat, falls viewing platform, or something else altogether.

If you missed the public meeting, you can still give input online until Dec. 5. Snohetta will be back in February with the plan they are calling "the preferred alternative."