Oregon City Can Do Better Than A New Mall. Right?

by | Jul 6, 2011

We moved from NE Portland to West Linn at the end of May and ever since we have been busy learning the area. I like to call it the South Shore, although I may be alone in that. Anyway, one of the things that stands out is the fact that West Linn and Oregon City, just across the river, both benefit from historic roots. In fact, it’s what keeps these towns from being suburbs, in the classic “municipalities made possible by Eisenhower-era freeways” sense.

Oregon City, of course, is the oldest city in Oregon. It’s where the Oregon Trail reached its end, and the place where white settlers filed their land claims in the new American territory. Today, more than 60 buildings in downtown Oregon City are eligible for the National Historic Register. But it’s clear that Oregon City needs help, as in economic development and urban renewal. It’s times like these that it would pay to be a multimillionaire, because the opportunities to usher in a new era of responsible growth and revitalization are immense.

There’s also significant pressure to make Oregon City a town of malls and planned communities, a move which strips some of the grit and character from the place. In my quest to understand the players and the details of the South Shore drama, I’ve been reading up on the Mayor, the City Commissioners, and plans for two massive projects–Clackamas Cove, a mixed use development on 109 acres, and The Rivers, a proposed 650,000-square-foot mall that would be built on a former landfill.

Oregon City Mayor, Doug Neely, is for the developments, but Commissioner James Nicita isn’t so sure. Nicita, a lawyer with an urban planning degree, wants to let taxpayers decide, and the developers aren’t happy about possible citizen roadblocks.

Steve Mayes of The Oregonian has been following the story. In June, Mayes reported that CenterCal, the company developing The Rivers, broke off negotiations with the city, citing a “deep division” among city commissioners, in particular two newly elected commissioners, James Nicita and Rocky Smith Jr., who both campaigned against the project.

According to Mayes, the project has been dogged by political clashes between those who see a mall as a way to turn an eyesore into a destination retail center and those who question the need for a $17.6 million subsidy. Now, negotiations between the land owner, Park Place Development, and CenterCal are at a standstill. City Manager David Frasher said, “You don’t have a project if the developer doesn’t have the land.”

Personally, I don’t think the Portland area needs another mall. You can find one a short drive in any direction from Oregon City.

Plus, a modern cookie-cutter mall is far from the only solution that will grow jobs and the tax base. What would be truly exciting is to see the organic growth of historic revitalization projects in the core of Oregon City’s downtown. That way, Oregon City remains a unique and vital place to work, live and visit. Naturally, this is the more complicated solution, one that depends on the actions of hundreds of individual investors, versus the swift moves of one or two adept developers.

I have my own ideas about what might work in Oregon City, and what I’d love to see happen there. After visiting Walla Walla last April, I can see how the urban tasting rooms model that makes Walla Walla such a desirable and walkable wine destination, might also work in Oregon City.

Why would the state’s wine industry make that kind of commitment to Oregon City, which isn’t known for producing wine? Access to the large wine-drinking population of Portland and its visitors, and cheap rents for historic properties, are two reasons why.