Portland eyes future of Willamette River, talks ‘renaissance’

Portland is a river city, but there’s little access to the Willamette on the Central Eastside. As Portland planners map out the next 20 years of growth for the Central Eastside, they are banking that the river will play a larger role. Kristyna Wentz-Graff/Staff

The Willamette River took center stage as the Portland City Council approved a conceptual plan Wednesday that calls for redeveloping a section of the Eastbank Esplanade to improve salmon habitat and increase options for boaters and swimmers.

The council also approved a separate study of five potential swimming sites in the city’s core which found the Hawthorne Bowl in Tom McCall Waterfront Park to be the "most favorable" place to create a public beach.

Mayor Ted Wheeler, who dropped off his ballot last May by first swimming across the Willamette River from the eastside, said swimmers and other river users are coming to the water’s edge whether city leaders are ready or not.

"Let’s take that river renaissance to the next level," he said. The city is expected to return later this year with cost estimates for the so-called Eastside Crescent site between the Marquam and Hawthorne bridges.

While none of the projects discussed Wednesday included any deadlines or firm cost estimates, for river users, the symbolic votes were a huge step forward as the city continues to turn its attention to the Willamette.

Portland officials have had big plans for the east bank of the Willamette River for more than 25 years — now they’re trying to spruce up the area again.

In 2011, Portland celebrated the grand opening of the $1.4 billion Big Pipe, which diverted sewer runoff from the river and, officials say, dramatically improved the river’s safety and water quality. Since then, more people have gravitated to the river for events like the annual Big Float, which draws thousands.

Then-Mayor Charlie Hales set aside $300,000 in his 2015 budget to study ways to boost river access, a move that came thanks in party to to consistent lobbying from advocates like the nonprofit Human Access Project.

Wednesday’s meeting drew a packed crowd of rowing supporters and others who have pushed for years to draw attention to the city’s lack of amenities in the downtown core for river lovers.

Swimming is clearly occurring in downtown Portland," said Willie Levenson, Human Access Project’s founder and a vocal advocate for rivers. "People are drawn to rivers, all living creatures are drawn to rivers," he said.

Levenson’s group helped remove 19 tons of concrete from an area underneath the Hawthorne Bridge on the eastside, which he calls Audrey McCall beach, over a four-year period.

He also pushed the council to do more to make swimming in the river an official city-sanctioned activity, such as add safety guidelines for swimming on the parks’ website and install flotation rings on both sides of the river. The organization plans to buy 25 safety rings, Levenson said, and he urged the city to match that.

But much of the meeting centered around the narrow stretch of shoreline and esplanade that sits between the Hawthorne Bridge and Marquam Bridge on the eastside.

The area is already home to the Portland Boathouse, a hub of rowing and paddle interests that draws more than 1,000 people to the river annually. The boathouse is searching for a new home, and boathouse president Bernie Thurber told the council the boathouse is teaming with OMSI to find a new home nearby. The boathouse plans to raise $3 million to make that happen.

But rowers say the city also needs to chip in. The boats use the aging Holman Dock, a structure owned by the city’s development agency that was originally installed in 2005. That dock is long past needing replacement, Thurber said.

A new river center with OMSI would be a significant draw in the area, but the "willingness to stay" depends on a dedicated dock for light watercraft users only, and that means city money.

"We hope that this plan marks the beginning of a new era of expanded access for all," he said.

The boat house’s lease is up in 2019.

Not everyone was pleased about the plan. OMSI, which owns the majority of the property included in the Eastbank Crescent’s parcel, did not address the council. But President and CEO Nancy Stueber sent a letter to the council saying the museum was concerned about the city’s actions.

OMSI, which owns about 18 acres of land in the immediate area, just finished a master plan for its property. Now that plan could be at odds with the city’s vision. OMSI also took exception to the city’s vision which calls for creating a more gradual slope to the river, which means "more of OMSI’s land will be undevelopable."

"While the plan is non-binding, OMSI said it is "all too easy for such ‘guidance’ to take on greater regulatory effect."

The Oregon Department of Transportation also owns property in that area.

Wheeler and Commissioners Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz, all signaled support for helping rowers and the boathouse remain on the eastside.

Fish said he was concerned about how to balance all the interests on the eastside, where rowers, pedestrians, cyclists and swimmers must share real estate on the river.

In the redevelopment plan, "fish habitat has to come first," said Fish.

Fritz, the parks commissioner, said she wanted the city to focus its attention on safety.

Portland will begin a $178,000 pilot project next month to add lifeguards and a cordoned off swimming area at Poet’s Beach, which sits at the base of the Marquam Bridge on the westside. That site was ranked second on the city’s list of best locations for an official beach.

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Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is an avowed transparency advocate who’s made reforming the state’s public records laws a central tenet of her tenure as governor. But she hasn’t always been consistent. Beth Nakamura/Staff

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