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Dec. 3, 2022

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Port of Ridgefield considers possibilities for waterfront development after cleanup complete

By , Columbian staff writer
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The Port of Ridgefield's waterfront property stretches along Lake River. The port is considering what to do next with the property now that the years-long environmental cleanup is complete.
The Port of Ridgefield's waterfront property stretches along Lake River. The port is considering what to do next with the property now that the years-long environmental cleanup is complete. (Port of Ridgefield) Photo Gallery

After decades of environmental cleanup, the Port of Ridgefield’s 40-acre waterfront property is ready to be redeveloped. Now that the property is suitable for use, the port has been asking what to do with the property.

“It’s my favorite thing to talk about,” said Randy Mueller, chief executive officer for the port.

The waterfront property lies along Lake River, which connects to Vancouver Lake to the south and the Columbia River to the north and is adjacent to downtown Ridgefield. Lake River passes through the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, one of the town’s major tourism drivers.

Mueller said the port has been eyeing the waterfront property for decades but had to wait for environmental work to be complete before moving forward. The port also had to wait for the Pioneer Street overpass to open, which happened in September 2021.

“With those pieces out of the way, now it’s really time to pick that process and start moving forward again,” Mueller said.

Residents have waited a long time for access to the waterfront property, said Ridgefield City Manager Steve Stuart.

“Thanks to 25 years of work by the Port of Ridgefield, and $100 million worth of investment by all our partners, the public has safe access to the Ridgefield waterfront for the first time in almost 100 years,” Stuart said.

To find out what Ridgefield residents want to see at the waterfront, the port spent May through July completing a survey and analyzing results. Mueller said the last survey, when the port held town hall meetings, sent emails and called residents, was nearly 10 years ago. Since then, Ridgefield’s population has more than doubled, so a new survey was needed.

“Most of the population of Ridgefield wasn’t here for that,” Mueller said. “We thought it was important, before we pick up the planning process, that we stop and do a big survey, so everyone gets a chance to make their voice heard.”

Stuart said the city has also been working with the port to ensure the public has a chance to weigh in on the waterfront’s future.

“With all the community investment and interest, the city and port are committed to taking time to listen, learn, and get the waterfront plan right for our residents.”

Mueller said the port received over 1,500 responses to the survey, more than 10 percent of the city’s population. The answers, Mueller said, were not that surprising.

“The No. 1 piece that came back was public access to the river for boaters, kayakers and swimmers,” Mueller said.

Some of the other top choices from residents were a community park, open space or walking trails. When asked what opportunities they were most looking forward to, the top answer was “a walkable community where people can live, work and play; a vibrant and accessible waterfront,” Mueller said.

One popular answer that came as a bit of a surprise was an interest in having retail and dining available.

“That was a solid second place answer,” Mueller said. “Less so shops, but more restaurants and coffee shops.”

With the survey results in hand, Mueller said the port is formalizing its plans, which will include a park.

“We’ve always kind of counted on the shoreline being a future park area, but we had to get through the cleanup and everything else,” Mueller said. “We heard their message loud and clear, and we are making this our top priority, too. They want a park? We’re absolutely going to give them a park.”

Business development

Residents hoping the entire waterfront property will be made into a park or open space may be disappointed to learn the port plans to redevelop at least some of the now-vacant property. During the cleanup effort, the port’s buildings had to be torn down so the ground under them could be cleaned of contaminants. The lone remaining building is the port offices, which Mueller said will be torn down later.

From the 1950s through the 1980s the property was home to the Ridgefield Veneer Co. In 1963, Pacific Wood Treating opened its operations on the waterfront, pressure-treating lumber for use in playground structures. The chemicals used on the lumber left behind significant environmental impacts, leading to the cleanup project.

ON THE WEB

For more information about the Port of Ridgefield waterfront property, go to portridgefield.org/opportunity/land-and-buildings/waterfront.

Developing the property as more than a park is vital to the port’s economic health, Mueller said.

“We had 12 buildings down here and hundreds of thousands of square feet of leasable space. That was our working waterfront at the time, how the port stayed in business,” Mueller said. “It’s always been in the plans to put buildings up to replace the buildings we tore down.”

The port began looking at how to redevelop the waterfront back in 2001 with the adoption of its Comprehensive Scheme of Harbor Improvements, a policy and planning document similar to comprehensive plans used by cities and counties. That plan included a mix of commercial, industrial and residential uses.

“The question we’re posing to the community and my commissioners are asking themselves is replace with what? We’re not going to do industrial again. We decided heavy industrial is out,” Mueller said.

The port wants to ensure businesses, and the corresponding jobs they bring, coming into the port will meet the community’s needs and median income requirements. Ideas being considered now include light industrial, technology, manufacturing and retail.

“I look around at successful waterfronts, and I see mixed-use waterfronts generally having … residential upstairs and retail on the ground floor, maybe some office upstairs. We need to figure out what kind of product mix makes sense for us,” Mueller said.

Environmental legacy

But Mueller notes there are limitations to what can be developed on the property because of its environmental legacy. During the cleanup, contaminants were removed from the soil using steam. The soil was then capped with a fabric barrier and 2 feet of clean fill. Mueller said this doesn’t mean it’s completely clean, but it is safe.

“It looks like a grassy field, but it’s actually a heavily engineered, artificial construct to protect people from pollution and contamination. It is not in any way a natural space. There are certain things we can and cannot do,” Mueller said.

One example of the state Department of Ecology’s restrictions is anyone doing utility work on the site and working below the 2-foot cap must be certified by the state to work with contaminated soils, he said. Another is that plants and trees with a tap root that would extend beyond the cap are prohibited because they could draw contaminants up through the soil.

“There’s a whole list of rules that go with the site in perpetuity,” Mueller added.

Despite the restrictions, Mueller said he’s confident a waterfront park will become a reality. He said the port will be reaching out to the city’s parks department in hopes of partnering on the project.

According to Stuart, the city is just as eager to see the park come to fruition.

“Our residents clearly want the ability to access and enjoy the waterfront, so the city is working with the port to make a public park an early priority,” Stuart said. “The city council and port commission are beginning conversations about how we can collectively embrace and feature what’s special and unique about our waterfront in any development, including access to the Columbia via Lake River and adjacency to the wildlife refuge.”

The port still has work to do in identifying where the funds for the park will come from.

“There are grants out there. The city, if it’s a city park, has access to their own parks funds,” Mueller said.

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