Willamette Falls is the second largest waterfall by volume in the United States. For over a century, the breathtaking site has been cut off from public access by industrial infrastructure built along the water’s edge. Snøhetta is leading the design of the public spaces that will allow visitors to rediscover the full height of the falls and its rugged shoreline, uncovering swaths of the 22-acre site’s historic basalt topography and reconnecting Oregon City to its spectacular waterfront.
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. Beginning at the entrance to Oregon City’s historic downtown and ending at the crest of the falls themselves, the riverwalk is conceived as sequence of islands, an archipelago carved from ancient basalt and industrial steel, concrete, and wood alike. The new design treats the whole site as a single landscape, with a network of promenades and lofted pathways that lace through the physical strata of the site, immersing visitors in a tactile experience that celebrates the changing water level, the feeling of the spray on your skin, the dramatic play of light and the roar and presence of the falls.
The site encompasses the location of Oregon City’s historic downtown. Over time, industry boomed and overtook the shoreline, and for the past century, the waterfront has been completely inaccessible to the public. Main Street, which once functioned as a major avenue, today dead-ends at the entrance to the project site and sequesters the site from the rest of the city.
The project aims to reconnect the city to the waterfront and its spectacular views of the falls, laying down the next historic layer - an experiential riverwalk that foretells a story of renewed economy, environmental sensitivity, and historic importance.
Through sensitive site editing, the design will provide public access and interpretation of a unique crop of nationally important historic structures that charted the industrial history of the Pacific Northwest. Simultaneously, the selective removal of industrial structure 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. New public gathering space will anchor the site as a civic heart of downtown, offering key opportunities for events and redevelopment that will drive economic renewal.
The Woolen Mill Overlook will serve as the public terminus of Main Street, offering 360° views of PGE dam, the historic boiler complex, the restored river alcove and The Public Yard.
The Public Yard is a new broad plaza with expansive views toward the falls and PGE Dam to the south. The Yard and adjacent structures provide a highly flexible public space where people can mingle and congregate in a new civic heart for Oregon City.
Today’s industrialized river edge diminishes the ecological value of the shoreline. The riverwalk design carves away industrial fill and structural platforms to restore region-specific ecosystems, such as alcove and riparian basalt habitats.
Existing Condition, aerial view looking northeast
The Mill O Visitor Center and Pipe Chase Porch. The exterior shell of the building is reinforced and retained, while the interior is opened up to make a large public hall, and offer opportunities to re-use interior wood structure. Large portions of the ground floor spill out to the adjacent public yard, creating flexibility and all-weather use.
Existing condition, looking south from within existing Mill H structure, peering out across Clarifier to Hawley Powerhouse Foundation and falls to south.
To offer prominent views of the falls and river valley to the south, the industrial corrugated cladding of the existing Mill H structure is peeled away. The structure is opened to light and air while revealing the reinforced steel and concrete structure of the mill. Portions of the Mill H ceiling are carved to further open the space connecting the interior to the sky. The concrete foundation of Mill H is repurposed to hold a large volume of soil to support a grove of native conifer tree species, referencing the historic wood-based paper-making processes that once took place in the structure.
The destination overlook of the riverwalk takes advantage of the precipitous location of the historic Hawley Powerhouse Foundation. The overlook is composed of two levels, each ADA-accessible. Above, a new platform opens up an unimpeded 360° view of the surrounding region from the center of the river and falls.