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Hood River, Ore., a port of inspiration for Clark County

Ports of Camas-Washougal, Ridgefield look to Oregon city as they plan waterfront development projects

The Columbian
5 Photos
Artwork and playground equipment greet visitors to the Hood River Waterfront Park, the front porch to the river. The 6.5-acre park is on land donated to the city by the Port of Hood River, done partially to help restore public trust with the port after decades of failed planning.
Artwork and playground equipment greet visitors to the Hood River Waterfront Park, the front porch to the river. The 6.5-acre park is on land donated to the city by the Port of Hood River, done partially to help restore public trust with the port after decades of failed planning. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

HOOD RIVER, Ore. — The sun was shining, but the legendary Gorge wind didn’t blow.

No wind meant no windsurfing, something for which Hood River is famous.

But at least one waterfront visitor was undeterred. Wearing a motor strapped to his back, the man soared over the river and through the nearby mountain range as he decided that sunny Friday was a good day for powered paragliding. Port of Hood River Executive Director Michael McElwee, no stranger to outdoor pursuits, hadn’t seen anything like it. He chuckled as he watched the man fly around and eventually disappear behind a far-off mountain.

Since taking over as executive director of the port in 2006, McElwee has seen Hood River’s waterfront transform from a mostly industrial area into a regional destination.

With Camas-Washougal and Ridgefield preparing for large waterfront development projects, local port officials are looking for inspiration and ideas. One place they’re looking is Hood River.

A vision for waterfront

Located about 60 miles east of Portland, Hood River has always enjoyed natural beauty. But like many Columbia River towns, its waterfront was historically industrial.

A lot of factors went into Hood River’s waterfront redevelopment, some planned and some not. One of the most important ideas, McElwee said, was to rebuild public trust. He said previous port commissions looked at redeveloping the waterfront throughout the last 30 years, but the deals never closed. There was contention between port officials, city officials and the public, something McElwee and current port officials felt was important to change.

“There’s something fundamental about looking at what values we all want to achieve,” he said. “The values we wanted were to support local business, maintain access to the waterfront, quality design and construction and public input.”

From there, port officials were able to come up with a concept for the waterfront. They donated about 6.5 acres of shoreline for a city park, which helped build trust and consensus.

“There was some resistance to giving away 6.5 acres of industrial land right on the water,” McElwee said. “That was land we filled and built roads to access, and giving it away meant a loss on (return on investment) for that land, and a loss of possible jobs right there. It was something people had to get comfortable with. Now, that park is the front porch to the river.”

A nonprofit was formed to raise money for the Hood River Waterfront Park. Since 2008, it has raised $860,000 for the park and obtained nearly $1.5 million in grants. The nonprofit is currently raising money for an amphitheater and more landscaping.

The park currently has walking trails, green space and an interactive play area and includes access to Luhr Jensen Beach.

Across Portway Avenue is the Halyard Building, a 20,000-square-foot building the port constructed for $3.35 million in 2010.

“We built it on spec,” McElwee said. “There were no tenants. It was during the recession. We wanted to show what kind of buildings we wanted down here. It looks like it would fit in with a more pedestrian area than an industrial one. There’s a lot of glass and benches around. It sounds simple, but it had to work.”

It filled, and now there are two more similar-looking buildings with large windows, wood siding and meticulous landscaping. McElwee said port officials knew they didn’t want the industrial area to look bland. But even with a distinct look in mind, McElwee wasn’t expecting the buildings to fill up like they did.

One of the first businesses to inquire about the Halyard Building was Pfriem Family Brewers. McElwee didn’t think about a brewpub moving into the waterfront area, since the land is mostly zoned for industrial use. But if a product, such as beer or food, is made on site, the business can sell it in industrial zoning, which opened up the space for Pfriem. Now the waterfront is home to a few restaurants and a coffee roaster.

“It was accidental good fortune,” McElwee said. “It adds to the pedestrian experience. We couldn’t have preordained that. Someone saw a market opportunity.”

As of this month, 445,000 square feet of space has been developed, creating 655 jobs. Between the port and developers, $84.9 million has been invested. There are four more projects in the works, which would add 300-plus jobs on another 175,000 square feet of land.

“Infrastructure is expensive,” McElwee said. “You create your own luck. With good planning and projects that create value, it creates its own momentum. Small businesses want to be down here now.”

The momentum created by the new buildings and the park helped to bring in seasonal businesses, like a gelato cart and huts where visitors can rent gear for paddleboarding, windsurfing and kiteboarding.

“That’s the kind of organic growth you engender when you invite collaboration and focus on what people using the space want,” McElwee said.

One tricky aspect in developing the waterfront was making sure it feels welcoming to visitors going to the park or one of the restaurants, while making sure the industrial businesses can operate. It’s not unusual to see large delivery trucks at the waterfront.

“We knew it had to be pedestrian-friendly on one side and industrial-friendly on the other,” McElwee said.

Camas-Washougal plans

David Ripp saw Hood River change from the windows of his home in White Salmon, across the Columbia River. Ripp is the executive director of the Port of Camas-Washougal, which is now in the planning and design phase of its own waterfront renaissance.

Ripp and some Camas-Washougal port officials toured the Port of Hood River last year, and Ripp said he liked the modern-looking buildings.

“They’re not outlandish looking,” he said. “They fit the waterfront. They’re natural, with a lot of wood and other materials. It’s very clean looking. It’s definitely what we would like to do with our development.”

Now the port is in the early planning stages for designing 40-plus acres of waterfront property near its offices. Plans call for a mix of residential and commercial development, with lots of open space and landscaping. It will be a public-private development. The port owns about 27 acres and the remaining 13 acres are owned by Parker’s Landing, which is represented by Vancouver-based commercial real estate developer Killian Pacific.

The residential component on the east side of the property is expected to be the first developed. Ripp foresees construction starting on that within the next 12 to 18 months.

Ripp wants to bring connectivity to the waterfront, and make it possible to walk from downtown Washougal to the waterfront. One idea from Hood River that Ripp is bringing to Camas-Washougal is the interactive play area. It will be located along the Washougal Waterfront Park & Trail. Plans call for it to contain a hillside slide, log steppers, a xylophone, drums, willow tree tunnels, boulder maze and log balancing beams. The focus of the play area will be a new statue and an old rock.

The unusual rock, nicknamed Erric the Erratic, was unearthed during the Highway 14 project about four years ago. It was put aside at the waterfront, and eventually, port officials learned it made its way to Washougal during the ancient Missoula Floods. The rock will be placed in the center of the play area, and a large Sasquatch will pull it. Kids will be able to climb on the rock, the Sasquatch and the rope.

While Ripp wants every aspect of development to bring in people, he knows what the focus of the site will be.

Port of Hood River, Ore., by the numbers

  • 6.5 acres of shoreline as a city park
  • 445,000 square feet of space has been developed as of this month
  • 655 jobs created
  • $84.9 million invested between the port and developers

“The anchor of the entire site is the Columbia River,” he said. “That’s the driving force we want to center everything around. We’re not going to put a building right up against the water.”

Ripp wants to make sure the incoming businesses will fit into the area, like those in Hood River. He said he’s sure people will want restaurants and bars that look out over the water, but Ripp also wants to see places where people can rent recreational gear to use on the water or while walking the trail.

Ridgefield’s opportunity

There’s no rush to develop the waterfront property in Ridgefield, according to Port of Ridgefield CEO Brent Grening.

“We’re being patient with this piece,” he said. “It took us a long time to get it to where it is.”

The port owns about 43 acres of property known as Miller’s Landing, the former home of pressure-treating company Pacific Wood Treating. After taking it over following the company’s bankruptcy in 1993, the port led one of the largest environmental cleanup efforts in state history. The area is now clean and ready for reuse, with 10 acres set aside for public space.

Grening said port officials are still going through ideas and possible options for the Miller’s Landing property. Part of the plan right now is to wait and see how the city of Ridgefield manages the rapid growth it has experienced the last few years. The sleepy town is changing fast.

“It’s a tougher place to invest in and feel like you’re investing wisely,” Grening said. “You’d still be investing ahead of a lot of the market, or with some risk. Developers don’t like to do that. It’s a great way to lose money. We can be very patient with this waterfront, looking for the exact right thing and working with our community to define that as our community grows.”

A foundational piece is expected to start construction this year. The Pioneer Street railroad overpass will extend over the BNSF Railway main line and connect downtown and the port property without a grade-level railroad crossing. That project is expected to be completed by the second half of 2018.

“At that point, we have uninterrupted, safe and direct access to the port from downtown,” Grening said.

He said the plan for the waterfront calls for mixed-use zoning, which will allow for retail, commercial, professional spaces and a bit of light manufacturing. Port officials are also working on hosting more events and luring more people to the waterfront with walking trails and opportunities for fishing, kayaking and boating. (Unlike Hood River and Washougal, Ridgefield fronts Lake River, a narrower channel.)

Grening and port officials have toured numerous sites, trying to set up a tour of port or waterfront property every time they leave the city for a meeting or conference. So far, they’ve toured sites in Portland, Olympia, Carillon Point in Kirkland and Vancouver, B.C.

He said Olympia appeared to have a solid public-private partnership, with areas for a farmers market, restaurants, offices and walking. The Carillon Point waterfront is a similar size to Ridgefield’s, Grening said, and it features a lot of green space and ways to enjoy Lake Washington.

While port representatives haven’t officially toured Hood River, Grening said he has sat in on presentations about it.

“It goes along with a lot of what we’re talking about: the recreational components, getting down there and creating a more natural river space, something that can handle large amounts of impact and use that destination to strengthen the economy of the downtown,” he said. “There are features in all of that that we’re paying attention to.”

In addition to a natural look, Grening said he’s interested in bringing sustainable technologies to the Ridgefield waterfront. Like McElwee and Ripp, Grening knows how important public opinion will be.

“Our job is to work with our community to set the vision, understand what technologies are out there so we get a very high-quality development,” he said. “At some point, it all comes together. We’ve got to make something that people are very proud of, they use, they want to come down to be at. That’s how we know we’ve created something valuable: it works for people, it works for the environment and maybe a little economic activity happens.”

Grening also said it’s important to face present-day realities, which are that people are interested in living around green spaces and recreational opportunities.

“Ridgefield’s waterfront was mills because that’s how you moved logs. Water access was a critical component. It was utilitarian. It wasn’t a lifestyle choice for a lot of these sites,” he said. “Now, as we redevelop, not all of these industrial properties should be put back into industrial use. Ridgefield’s is one of those. The day for an industrial waterfront in Ridgefield is gone.”