Splash Down by the River

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The Riverwalk proposal was chosen for experiential attributes with design to follow.
Courtesy Snohetta

Willamette Falls, located fourteen miles upstream from Portland, Oregon, is the largest waterfall in the Pacific Northwest. But the natural wonder, its banks lined by historic industrial buildings, is not open to the public. That will change now that Oregon Governor Kate Brown has announced the selection of Mayer/Reed, Snøhetta, and DIALOG as the design team for the Riverwalk, an initial phase of the Willamette Falls Legacy Project. When completed, visitors will have access to the site for the first time in more than 100 years.

A consortium of public and private partners—Oregon City, Clackamas County, Metro, the State of Oregon, and Falls Legacy LLC—selected the multi-disciplinary team from a three-team shortlist that also included James Corner Field Operations with Place Studio and Miller Hull Partnership as well as a team of Walker Macy with Thomas Balsley Associates.

The construction budget for the first phase of the Riverwalk is $10 million. The design team will receive $650,000 in public and private funding to take the proposal through schematic design, with an additional $200,000 coming from the private landowner of the former Blue Heron site and the remainder from Metro, Oregon City, Clackamas County, and the State of Oregon.

The client asked the team not to present a design, per se, but ideas that reflect an approach to materials and the “spirit of the place.” A full design will be fleshed out through a participatory process with the community led by Portland-based engagement specialist JLA Public Involvement.

“The ephemeral qualities of the site were as important to us as the experience of the materials: reflections off the water, the sound of the falls, and the feeling of mist on skin,” recalled Michelle Delk, Snøhetta’s director of landscape architecture.

Evocative imagery and sensitivity to the natural and cultural histories distinguished the Mayer/Reed, Snøhetta, and DIALOG proposal. Lightweight walkways skirt the riverbank and weave in and out of the former Blue Heron Paper Mill, allowing visitors to take in sublime views of the falls and the old structures. According to Delk, the team interpreted the brief for a master plan as a “master section,” a document that cuts, almost archeologically, through the layers of the site: the geology, ecology, Native American occupation, and the industrial remains.

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