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Green Ribbon or Consolation Prize: the Willamette River Greenway

On the 25th anniversary of Senate Bill 100, McCall's bill to create urban growth boundaries and the Willamette Greenway in Portland, Oregon, how is the trail corridor doing?

Opinion by Commissioner Charlie Hale

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We Portlanders have bragging rights to an impressive list of civic assets: a downtown that is alive and safe, city neighborhoods that are great places to live and raise a family, beautiful parks, and a transit system which is heavily used by people who can afford cars, but choose to take the bus. These distinctions give character to our community and pay dividends to us all in quality of life.

One of our favorite civic assets, the one we're most likely to show to our out-of-town visitors or enjoy for a Saturday run or bike ride is the Willamette River Greenway. Created by Governor Tom McCall, the Greenway is now institutionalized in Portland's plans and regulations. The idea is simple, but powerful: provide a continuous pedestrian and bike pathway along the waterfront, and design new development to embrace this public promenade, rather than obstruct it. It's natural that this "public way" was begun by McCall, the same leader who ensured that Oregon's beaches would be open to all.

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Senate Bill 100, McCall's bill to create urban growth boundaries and the Willamette Greenway. So, it seems appropriate that we do a checkup: how are we doing in carrying out McCall's vision?

The answer, unfortunately, is that we have only done a partial job of it.

Take a walk with me along the existing Greenway, and you'll see what I mean. If we start at the Salmon Street Springs fountain in Tom McCall Waterfront Park, and head north, we can walk more than a mile, but the pathway dumps abruptly into a waterfront parking lot just north of the Steel Bridge.

If we head south, we're in for a real odyssey. Just past Riverplace, the trail stops at the wasteland of former industrial areas that runs from the Marquam Bridge to the Old Spaghetti Factory restaurant. In front of the restaurant is a trail to nowhere, a forlorn fragment of what could be...should be...continuous. Past another gap, the trail resumes in front of the River Forum office building and goes south for a mile, before disappearing into a tangle of blackberries just a few hundred yards from the Sellwood Bridge.

The impression from this walk is strong - and valid: the city started something wonderful here, too bad they (we) didn't finish it. That's the shame, and the promise, of the Willamette River Greenway. For the City of Portland now has the opportunity and the means to complete this bold vision and then move on to other sections of the urban waterfront and do likewise.

Those other sections are as important as the first. By stressing the importance of finishing the first piece of Portland's green ribbon, I do not mean that we should stop there. During my time on the City Council, we have blocked the construction of a huge freeway ramp on the Eastbank, and sketched a plan for reclaiming that area for public access, connecting the Convention Center to the outstanding natural area of Oaks Bottom with a continuous trail on the east side of the river as well.

First, though, we should do a proper job with the piece we've begun, but making Tom McCall's dream real requires that we focus our efforts on the real work of completing the Willamette Greenway. I use the word focus deliberately, because the city is in danger of losing focus on the Willamette Greenway in two keyareas: policy, and money.

Regarding policy, the City Council is being urged to spend large sums of scarce public dollars on yet another Greenway planning exercise, a move which would miss the point and waste a lot of time and money. The city has already adopted effective regulations governing the height, setback and design of buildings along the Greenway. Last year, the City Council wisely adopted a Street Plan for the North Macadam district south of the Marquam Bridge, assuring the public endless process of planning the plan.

The sad result could be a lot of talk about the Greenway, but not enough action. For the Portlander seeking recreational access to the river, there would be a few more nice places along the way, but still a tantalizing and frustrating half-measure of Tom McCall's bold dream.

Let's celebrate the twenty-fifth birthday of the Greenway with something real and wonderful: the completion of the original stretch of our urban waterfront. Let's celebrate with a complete green ribbon along our river, rather than with yet more planning, a few disconnected pieces of trail and vague good intentions.

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