In June 2017, the Zidell Marine Corporation launched its final barge into the Willamette River, closing a century of maritime industry, craftsmanship and stories in Portland's South Waterfront District. This highly visible location on the Willamette Riverfront was once a bustling, evolving center of barge building, ship-breaking, and timber conveyance; today, this 130-acre brownfield has become Oregon's highest-density neighborhood. For the last 15 years, this emerging new neighborhood has been a proving ground for new approaches in urban planning, brownfield redevelopment, "beyond LEED Platinum" sustainable design, health research and education, public open spaces, and riparian restoration. South Waterfront Greenway is a 1.2-mile segment of the Willamette Greenway that is a highly visual, activated centerpiece of this new neighborhood as a successful, living experiment in interweaving urban recreation with riparian habitats. It also begins to fill a critical gap in the multi-modal Greenway system, which is accommodating thousands of new bike and pedestrian commuters as Portland has matured into a nationally-known destination for active urbanites. The original master plan for the full South Waterfront Greenway, and its first developed phase, the Central District, was executed by a team led by landscape architects Walker Macy, as prime firm and landscape architect of record, and Thomas Balsley Associates (now SWA/Balsley) as lead designer. This partnership led the project from its early master planning in 2002, to the completion of the 4.3-acre Central District in 2015. The park has become both a focal point of the district and a place to move through, with direct access to the water at the termini of the district's east-west streets and a new segment of the multimodal Willamette Greenway trail. The Central District area has become the "living room" for this vibrant new neighborhood, which consists entirely of apartments and condos, making open spaces cherished places of individual respite and social gathering.
With a high mandate for repair of the extremely impacted, post-industrial riverbank and upland site, the essential challenge was to provide for adequate riparian renaturalization, while still providing visual and physical access to the river itself. The design of the Central District includes two primary areas: an upland urban park that interfaces with the urban South Waterfront District, and the riparian bank. Their closely-knit arrangement allows for an intimate relationship with the water - just footsteps from high-density housing and the multi-modal trails; the park's embrace of the riverbank encourages face-to-face interaction with not only the river, but the wildlife as well, including salmon, heron, osprey and other animals that inhabit the river's edge. Elevated overlooks provide an observational experience of the water, through and over the riparian plants; a ramp leading directly to the water provides a chance to experience the river's edge up close, and is a popular put-in for light watercraft.
The overarching design reaches back through the history of the site, drawing inspiration from historic uses, while working to heal the site - allowing it to once again be a positive contributor to the river's health. The graceful, arcing forms of the park's trails (with separated routes for bicycles and pedestrians differentiated by materials and pavement markings) and lawn shelves create a strong contrast to the glittering, linear high-rises and unique architecture of the district, which form the park's backdrop. The intentional use of heavy timber and weathering steel in contemporary forms recalls the site's industrial past. The riverbank was substantially re-shaped, from low-water habitat to the terraced bank that includes soft stormwater plantings and a 'honeycomb' of concrete planting vaults. These engineered riverbank systems are often not treated as a design opportunity; at the greenway, the 'honeycomb' lends a striking visual quality to the riverbank that is revealed during times of the year when water levels are low. Native and climate-adaptive plants have naturally restorative properties and underscore the regional context. The work of a public artist introduced a thought-provoking environmental piece that highlights man's intervention in the native environment and the Native American history on this site. The materials, landscape forms and public art of the upland combine with the stormwater swales and filter elements along the pedestrian paths to filter and clean the district's rainwater before entering the Willamette River.
As seen in LASN magazine, March 2020.