As Janie Har reported in Wednesday's Oregonian, Portland's city council is poised to approve a new plan for the Willamette River that has been in the works for over a decade.
The plan moves the city closer to a balanced relationship between industrial use, public access and ecology, and towards a future where, like Oregon's pioneering all-public ocean beaches, the riverbank is a shared resource with access for all.
In the Oregonian story, the focus clearly seems to be the opposition of local companies doing business along the river making up the Working Waterfront Coalition, such as Schnitzer Steel, barge builder Gunderson, and ship repair facility Cascade General. About 50 local businesses, with approximately 38,000 employees, move goods by water. The story's headline reads, "Portland officials push River Plan ahead, despite business opposition," yet environmentalists and public advocates have at least as much of an argument to make.
"A bigger hammer and more regulation is not the answer," T. Alan Sprott of Cascade General told Har in regard to the River Plan and its attendant protection policies. "We're competing with Vancouver and Bellingham and Newport and Coos Bay for these projects. Slowly but surely, those projects will go to those communities instead of here, and you will see an erosion of the (business) cluster that has grown here for over 60 years."
Last week City Council approved the first phase of the The River Plan, which deals with the North Reach, one of three sections the Portland portion of the river is divided into. The North Reach extends from Kelly Point Park to the Fremont Bridge on the west side and to the Broadway Bridge on the east side. The council is scheduled to take a final vote April 15.
The River Plan was first forwarded by then-Mayor Vera Katz in 2000. The idea is to protect fish-spawning in the river and ensure there are enough trees for migrating birds. The Plan would require developers to set aside 15 percent of their property for landscaping (or use an eco roof), set back their structures at least 50 feet from the bank, and require projects expanding a business's footprint to undergo city review.
It's that last piece, city review, that has businesses particularly on the defensive. And one can sympathize with a company being apprehensive about dealing with new levels of government red tape.
At the same time, I would argue that these businesses need to look at the longer view, which is a steady move away from letting industrial businesses dominate riverside property without allowing any public movement along the water.
There used to be a time when Oregon's ocean beaches were often private, and that's still the case in much of coastal America. There also used to be a time in Portland, much more recently, when hardly any of the Willamette Riverfront was available to the public to walk along. That has slowly changed with the introduction of the Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade and the Willamette Greenway. But the city still has a long way to go towards the ultimate goal of making the entire riverbank a continuous public path. And that is clearly the future.
Obviously any city, Portland included, needs to reserve a portion of its waterfront for industry, particularly the moving of goods and services. The Willamette and Columbia rivers, besides being beautiful and thus magnets for the public, are also industrial routes. In past decades and even centuries, ever since the Industrial Revolution or even before, urban riverbanks have been restricted places meant more for cranes than pedestrians. But look at any progressive waterfront city in the developed world, and you'll find locals wanting an increasing segment for themselves, and justifiably so.
"This plan was supposed to serve the entire community," said Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland, at last week's hearing. "At some point it became all about them (businesses) and only about them."
T. Alan Sprott of Cascade General may have a legitimate concern regarding Portland's competition with other regional ports and creating a level business and regulatory playing field. Even so, heavy industry is going to have to make more room on the sofa, not less. People want to walk along the river with greenery around and know there are fish in the water, not pollution. Nobody wants port-oriented business and those 38,000 jobs to go away, but the rules along the river are changing. The accompanying regulation is not a "bigger hammer", as Sprott calls it, but a better-working scale that balances public and private needs.