Tom McCall Waterfront Park comprises 36.59 acres that stretch from
Riverplace on the south to the Steel Bridge on the north. On the
west, the park is bordered by Naito Parkway and the Willamette River
forms the eastern boundary.
The park consists of 13 tax lots and is owned by
the City of Portland (Portland Parks and Recreation) though the land
under the bridges is owned by Multnomah County. The park can
generally be divided into five distinct zones, described below.
The Esplanade is paved walkway along
the river, part of a riverfront corridor extending on both sides
of the Willamette River within which “river recreational” uses
are promoted. Greenway regulations define this zone as 25' from
the top of the bank. In Waterfront Park, the greenway zone
includes the walkway and part of the adjacent lawn areas as
The Bowl anchors the southern end of
the park, abutting the Riverplace residential and An Overview of
the Park commercial development. Because of the bowl’s natural
slope to the water, it functions as an informal amphitheater for
concerts. The bowl also serves as the site of the annual
Dragonboat races, Oregon Symphony concerts and the Blues
Salmon Street Springs and the John Yeon
building anchor the area north of Hawthorne Bridge. The fountain
is set in a concrete plaza, which includes a set of sitting
steps that leads to a viewing area over the river.
McCall’s Restaurant, the current occupant of
the historic John Yeon building, abuts the fountain to
the south and is the major permanent commercial user of the
park. This area also acts as the moorage and embarking site for
the Portland Spirit, a small cruise ship that provides 2-hour
trips on the Willamette River.
The central lawn is a dominant feature
of the park, between Salmon Street Springs to the Burnside
Bridge. The lawn is used most intensively during the summer by a
series of outdoor festivals and events.
Use of the Park
walking, biking, skateboarding, fountain play, lunching, basketball,
fireworks viewing and boat watching are common, popular informal
park uses. As Waterfront Park is easily accessible to the downtown
Portland workforce, it is heavily used, especially by walkers and
joggers, during the lunch hours from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm, as well as
from 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm. Bike commuters use the park during rush
hours because Naito Parkway lacks bike lanes.
The idea for this park came at the turn of the
century when the 1903 Olmsted Report pointed out the need not only
for parks within the city, but for a greenway scheme for the
riverbanks in order to ensure their preservation for future
In the late 1920s, the seawall was built along the
Willamette's west bank for the protection of downtown from the
annual floods. The seawall not only cut off the water from the
people, but the people from the water as well. The construction of
Harbor Drive along the west bank in the 1940s continued the trend of
isolating the public from the river.
With the opening of the Eastbank Freeway (Marquam Bridge, I-5),
Harbor Drive became less important to the traffic flow of the city.
Governor Tom McCall created the Harbor Drive Task Force in 1968 in
order to study proposals for creating a public open space in its
place. In 1974, Harbor Drive was torn up and construction of a
waterfront park began. It was completed and dedicated in 1978,
gaining instant popularity. In 1984, the park was renamed Governor
Tom McCall Waterfront Park.
In 1851 when Portland was founded as a city, the
waterfront was the center of the city’s commerce and trade. Even in
1907, docks and buildings extended over the river and were connected
by a narrow, meandering strip between the river’s edge and Front
Street. Flooding was a constant problem and was controlled only by
the streets which acted as public levees. During the first three
decades of the 1900s, largely due to flooding, the preferred
location for housing and business shifted further west.