Snøhetta Designs a New Riverwalk That Will Bring Public Access to Oregon City's Willamette Falls

Snøhetta Designs a New Riverwalk That Will Bring Public Access to Oregon City's Willamette Falls

For over a century, the breathtaking Willamette Falls—the second largest waterfall by volume in North America, and located less than an hour away from Portland, Oregon—has been cut off from public access by an industrial infrastructure built along the water’s edge. But soon, Snøhetta's design for a new riverwalk will restore public access for the first time in over 150 years

The design that was recently announced to the public reveals a complex two-year design process that was led by the international firm Snøhetta, in partnership with Mayer/Reed and DIALOG. The visionary plan will allow visitors to rediscover the full height of the falls and experience its rugged shoreline. This will allow Oregon City to be reconnected to its spectacular waterfront while uncovering the 22-acre site’s historic basalt topography. Construction is expected to begin in June 2018.

The riverwalk design—consisting of the Woolen Mill Alcove and Public Yard—will carve away industrial fill and structural platforms to restore region-specific ecosystems. The selective removal of industrial structures will restore healthy animal and plant habitats within the retained structures and on the basalt bedrock of the site, establishing an ecological vitality unique to the site and in service to endangered wildlife species. 

Oregon City’s historic downtown will serve as the entrance to the riverwalk, which will end at the crest of the falls. The architects explain, "The riverwalk will serve as a portal to the Northwest’s collective history, reviving a former industrial site through its aggregated layers of natural, ecological, cultural, and geological history." 

The Woolen Mill Overlook will serve as the public terminus of Main Street, offering 360-degree views of PGE dam, the historic boiler complex, the restored river alcove, and the Public Yard. 

Conceived as a "sequence of islands," the entire site will be treated as a single landscape, with a network of promenades and lofted pathways that are designed to immerse visitors in a tactile experience that celebrates the changing water level, the spray of the water, the dramatic play of light, and the roar of the falls.  

At the Mill H Grove and Overlook, the industrial corrugated cladding of the existing Mill H structure will be peeled away. This will provide prominent views of the falls and river valley
to the south. The structure will be opened to light and air while revealing the reinforced steel and concrete structure of the mill. Portions of the Mill H ceiling will be carved to further open the space connecting the interior to the sky.

The design team faced a whole host of challenges in order to accommodate the many needs specific to the site. The location is home to endangered species and diverse flora and fauna that are in need of protection. Additionally, the river levels typically experience a fluctuation of approximately 25 feet over the course of a year, so expert hydrologists were brought in to study the effects of extreme flooding on the new design and to help formulate a strategy to mitigate the potential extent of possible flooding. The riverwalk will also be reinforced to withstand seismic activity. 

"Collectively, the riverwalk sequence opens a new chapter in the life of the site—one that reimagines Willamette Falls in its fullest, most expansive depth in nature, culture, and time," Snøhetta explains.

Shown here is the Mill O Visitor Center and Pipe Chase Porch. Visible from Main Street and commanding a presence from the water, Mill O—a historic extension to the Oregon City Woolen Mill—will be well-positioned to serve as the riverwalk’s visitor center. 

Shown here is the Clarifier Landscape and PGE Dam Promenade. A proposed walkway leads to the clarifier, a water quality treatment structure once used by Blue Heron Paper to treat waste water from its paper making processes. The landscape interior of the clarifier is inspired by the region’s oak savanna habitat featuring characteristic Oregon oak and camassia plantings, as well as basalt salvaged from the site.

The destination overlook of the riverwalk will take advantage of the precipitous location of the historic Hawley Powerhouse Foundation. The overlook will be composed of two levels, each ADA-accessible. Above, a new platform will open up to an unimpeded 360-degree view of the surrounding region from the center of the river and falls. 

What the landscape currently looks like.


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