Grand Ronde’s Vision Taking Shape for Willamette Falls Project

After more than a year of collaboration between the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde — the new owner of the former Blue Heron paper mill in Oregon City — and the Willamette Falls Legacy Project, the vision for the first phase of the proposed riverwalk at Willamette Falls is finally coming together.

As detailed in the tribe’s newly released visioning document for the Blue Heron project, the first phase will include habitat restoration and public access improvements, leading visitors along the river from McLoughlin Boulevard to a landing at the north end of a future public gathering place.

The larger Willamette Falls overlook, designed in 2020, would be constructed in a future phase.

Courtesy the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

Officials with the Willamette Falls Legacy Project last month approved moving ahead with the concept pending formal riverwalk support from the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

The concept is estimated to cost $12.5 million to realize, with funding already secured.

“We’re making really great strides forward for something that’s going to benefit everyone at the table,” Rachel Lyles Smith, newly elected mayor of Oregon City, said at the February meeting. “And it’s going to benefit Oregon. This is a destination site and it makes me excited.”

Courtesy the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

In March, the Tribe released sketches and more detailed plans for the project, which include a mix of potential uses for the land.

At the northern end, the Tribe says there is potential for office, retail, restaurants and public spaces near the falls, as well as instructional learning spaces so visitors can learn about the history of the land.

Tribal leadership is still evaluating which industrial buildings will remain, but the March visioning document suggests at least half will be removed or renovated to accommodate new uses.

Tribal leaders are proposing a more extensive ecological restoration at the property’s southern end. These plans would include restoring natural basalt landscape and water channels underneath the former mill buildings now proposed for demolition.

Plans are expected to be finalized by the end of the year, with construction potentially starting sometime in 2022.

Courtesy the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

The Willamette Falls Legacy Project is a partnership between Oregon City, Clackamas County, Metro and the State of Oregon.

Since the Tribe purchased the former Blue Heron paper mill in summer 2019, the Legacy Project team has worked with leaders to align plans for phasing the riverwalk in a way that meets funding constraints and public commitments, while supporting their priorities for private development.

“I think we’re seeing the culmination of a true collaboration,” Lyles Smith said.

Courtesy the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

This concept for the first phase also paves the way for the project to move into a second phase. Money from Metro’s 2019 parks and nature bond measure, the Willamette Falls Trust, and additional commitments from Oregon City and other project partners will provide the funding for a second phase.

The 23-acre property, which sits on the east bank of the Willamette River in Oregon City, is located within the Tribe’s ancestral homelands land and holds significant historical and cultural importance.

“We have always been the caretakers of this area,” said Grand Ronde Tribal Councilman Michael Langley. “I’m looking forward to continuing this work for the next generations.”

Courtesy the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

The lands were once home to the Charcowah village of the Clowewalla (Willamette band of Tumwaters) and the Kosh-huk-shix Village of Clackamas people. They were ceded to the United States government under the Willamette Valley Treaty of 1855.

Following the Willamette Valley Treaty, tribal members were forcibly removed from Willamette Falls and relocated to Grand Ronde.

Since acquiring the property from Washington developer George Heidgerken in 2019, the Tribe has been working with a design team from GBD Architects and Walker | Macy to create their vision for the site — focused on the central idea of healing and the values of spirit, place, people and prosperity.

Willamette Falls is the second-largest waterfall in the United States by volume. File photo.

The project is also intended to include and promote environmental restoration that will restore long-lost natural basalt landscape and water channels, and native plantings and restored riparian habitat to benefit native fish, birds and other wildlife.

The Tribe and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality agreed to terms for a clean-up plan at the site in 2019, and since then, the two entities have worked together to address multiple areas of concern while also identifying federal funding opportunities to help fund assessment and cleanup efforts on the property.

“The healing of the falls, returning them to its people, walking on the rocks that our ancestors walked on — it’s all beyond words,” Tribal Councilwoman Kathleen George said.

See the Tribe’s full vision for the project here.

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