North Portland’s Willamette riverfront in flux: an opportunity with no guiding vision

There’s an opportunity to reclaim, rediscover and restore North Portland’s neglected Willamette riverfront. But without a guiding vision, it will be left to happenstance, piecemeal and inappropriate development. 

The North Reach Plan, 2009, would have helped define that process and return to the lower river some environmental function, but it has been tied up in the courts by local industry represented by the Working Waterfront Coalition. 

Even though many industry owners do not live here, they appear to have more influence on what happens to our community-owned river than we residents have. Other land use plans that might have helped define North Portland’s waterfront are now outdated: the Cathedral Park Plan, 2009, and the St. Johns Plan, 2004, both dealt with zoning near the river. 

Several connected Willamette riverfront properties are in flux due to changing ownership and represent an unusually large and rare amount of open shoreline. 

Willamette riverfront
Willamette riverfront
Willamette riverfront map
Willamette riverfront map

Below are the key opportunity sites:

North Portland's Willamette shoreline
North Portland’s Willamette shoreline

Mar Com Inc. North Parcel, 8.2 acres 

It was purchased and cleaned up by the Port of Portland in 2004. The North parcel had been used for storage of materials related to industrial activities that occurred on the adjacent South Parcel. 

Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) removed and disposed of piles of sandblast grit stored on this parcel. The site is now clean. The Port of Portland planned to use the property for expansion of the Toyota Import Facility. That never happened.

Mar Com Inc. South Parcel, 7.3 acres

It reverted to a previous owner, Langley St. Johns, LLC, in 2001. Historically it was used for ship and equipment repair, including sandblasting, and lumber manufacture, storage, and sales. Activities ceased in 2004.

It became an orphan site and the soils were cleaned up by DEQ starting in 2002 as part of the Superfund Program. The Orphan Program uses state funds to clean up high-priority sites where owners and operators responsible for the contamination are absent, or unable or unwilling to use their own resources for cleanup.

Green Anchors, an eco-themed industrial maker-space, has leased the site for a number of years. The owners-managers of the business are very interested in reclaiming and restoring the land and riverfront.

Steel Hammer, 10.48 acres

It has a great deal of riverfront. In 1988 it was discovered that 500-600 tons of “black sand,” derived from the sandblasting of marine tanks, had been placed as fill along the riverbank at the western end of the site. No cleanup has been undertaken as yet. Several years ago, a real estate company considered purchasing the site for multi-family housing but backed out, possibly due to liability issues. The site is mostly empty and currently advertised for lease for industrial uses.

Willamette Cove, 27 acres

Willamette Cove from the bluff
Willamette Cove from the bluff. Photo by Barbara Quinn.

This site was used as a lumber mill, plywood mill, barrel manufacturing, and a shipbuilding/repair and dry dock facility until the 1960s. These past uses have resulted in significant soil contamination and serious pollution in the upland and riverbank portions of the property, and Willamette River sediment adjacent to the site. Industry deserted the site completely by the mid ‘70s. It is not currently considered safe to access the site.

Metro owns the site and signed an agreement with DEQ to start cleanup in 2001. The site has been designated a public greenspace.

The most contaminated topsoils have already been removed and Metro is continuing soil sampling to further clean the site to Natural Area standards. They have also started the process of public outreach to get feedback from residents about a future vision for the site. 

Willamette Cove heavily industrialized past
Willamette Cove’s heavily industrialized past
Willamette Cove in the present, a future natural area
Willamette Cove now, a future Metro natural area

McCormick & Baxter Creosoting Co., 58 acres

Between 1944 and 1969, McCormick & Baxter’s wastewater was discharged directly into the Willamette River. Between 1968 and 1972, wood preservative waste residues were disposed of on-site in a waste disposal area. As a result of these and other waste-handling and disposal practices, surface soils over most of the site became contaminated with wood-treating chemicals. Creosote and oils pooled on the groundwater table, and large areas of river sediments became contaminated by creosote seeps.

McCormick and Baxter past and present

DEQ initiated a Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study for cleanup in 1990. Limited funding was received from McCormick and Baxter before the company declared bankruptcy. The investigation continued using state monies from the Orphan Program. The property became its own Superfund site within the larger Willamette Superfund. 

Contaminated soils have been moved to the center of the site and a clean sand, rock and soil cap has been placed on top. An 18-acre, fully encompassing, impermeable subsurface barrier wall (from 45 to 80 feet below ground surface) was installed in the summer of 2003 to contain and prevent creosote from impacting the Willamette River. An armored sand cap was placed in the river to physically and chemically isolate contaminated sediments from surface water. Groundwater is not used at or in the vicinity of the site.

The remedies were completed in 2005. The site is checked every five years to see if contaminants remain blocked from entering the river. There is limited use of the site due to the cap. It cannot be built on extensively and will have to be monitored into perpetuity. 

There is currently a sales agreement on the site, but it requires the prospective buyer, Portland Botanical Garden, a 4-year-old startup, to come up with $2 million within a year and conduct major public outreach. It is not a guaranteed sale.

University of Portland River Campus, 51.6 acres

The site’s industrial history dates back to at least 1900. Nearly 50 industrial operations have occupied the site. 

Sandblast grit and soils in several areas of the site contained elevated levels of toxic metals. A plan to clean the site was approved in 2005.

The University of Portland acquired the property in 2008. They removed the soil hot spots and capped the remaining soils that were found to be above risk-based levels. They were required to regrade, cap, and revegetate the riverbank along the site shoreline. Work was completed in 2014.

Certain activities are not allowed, such as any construction that could penetrate the cap.

The 2,250 linear feet of waterfront provides a host of opportunities for natural resources for the University’s Environmental Science program. They have considered conducting studies on juvenile salmon recovery on the site’s riverfront which would be an invaluable service to the river and to the community.

Returning biological function to the entire 2-mile stretch would be a boon to our most endangered river species: salmon, steelhead and lamprey who require shallows, shade, riverine-related plants and associated small creatures for food to survive. It would be an excellent opportunity to teach people how a river can be restored. The sites could form a 2-mile haven for both wildlife and people. 

aWith new political representatives for North Portland entering the scene at the federal, county and the city level, it is vital that community voices begin to be heard through a revived North Reach Plan or a new public planning process so this opportunity isn’t wasted. Public funds have been spent on cleanup of these properties at no small expense to the taxpayers.(Background data is from DEQ)