BY LINDA BAKER
In our October issue, I wrote a story about several Willamette Valley cities and their efforts to retool their economies, post-recession. A few common themes emerged—namely, a shared focus on downtown revitalization and the creation of new value-added businesses, be it green nanotech in Albany or advanced food processing (artisan cider) in Salem.
That article left out another emerging development strategy. With few exceptions, the Willamette Valley cities are returning to their namesake but oft-ignored river as an urban amenity and eco-friendly development tool.
In Salem, for example, the city has been working to implement a long-standing community plan connecting three urban parks and more than twenty miles of trails via two pedestrian bridges over the Willamette. In 2009, the city completed the first bridge: the Union Street Railroad Bridge, linking West Salem’s Wallace Marine Park with downtown’s Riverfront Park.
The next step is to build the Minto Island Bicycle and Pedestrian Bridge and multimodal trail. The conceptual design was completed this summer and the final design phase will be completed in April, 2013. So far, about $5,000,000 in urban renewal funds has been allocated for the project. To boost tourism and encourage more people to live/work/play downtown, "we are returning to the river," says John Wales, Salem's urban development director.
Portland, of course, is building its own bike/pedestrian/light rail bridge over the Willamette. As the Oregonian’s Anna Griffin reported in October, the city is also taking a dramatic new approach to riverfront development, to be codified in the Central City 2035 plan, a 20-year vision in progress for downtown Portland. The river "is not going to be something to just look at anymore," Michelle Rudd, a land-use lawyer with Stoel Rives and vice chair of Portland's Planning and Sustainability Commission, told Griffin. To engage residents, businesses and tourists with the city’s signature waterway, planners are considering moving riprap to create natural river banks and swimming beaches, and running water taxis to and from OMSI, the Rose Garden and Waterfront Park.
Further south, the city of Springfield has completed a "refinement" plan aimed at redeveloping Glenwood, a square-mile-sized district between between Eugene and Springfield. The refinement plan replaces an earlier, 20-year-old plan completed by the city of Eugene--one that downplayed the river and focused on the industrial area next to I-5. The new plan, by contrast, makes the Willamette the centerpiece of a mixed-use commercial and retail and residential district, with pedestrian-friendly boulevards and family access to the river.
The efforts underway in Portland, Salem and Springfield reflect growing interest in mining the amenity value of Oregon's natural waterways. Famous for its open access approach to the Oregon coast, the state has treated many of its rivers as obstacles to be crossed, dumping grounds for pollutants--or, at best, a natural (cleaned up) waterway disconnected from the life of the city. Now cities such as Hood River, The Dalles, and Astoria are trying to close the gap between the metropolis and the river that runs through it, via natural restoration, beach access and mixed-use development.
Inevitably, these people-oriented river restoration efforts will come into conflict with longtime industrial uses of the river – and expanding urban beach access alongside working ports or harbors will continue to be an issue in many of Oregon's river cities.
Despite the challenges, the return to the river fits in with larger downtown revitalization and economic development trends, in which urban amenities such as greenspaces have become critical tools in recruiting and retaining companies and workers.
Albany developer David Johnson, for one, is banking on the appeal of the river to spur business. He recently completed the Wheelhouse, one of the city's first riverfront mixed-use office buildings, featuring a restaurant patio jutting out into the Willamette. “There are," says Johnson, "only so many natural waterways.”
Linda Baker is managing editor of Oregon Business