A vision for swimming
When the temperature sizzles in Portland, sunbathers and swimmers are flocking to the Holman Dock, on the Willamette River just south of the Hawthorne Bridge.
It's fun to lay on a dock and use it as a jumping-off point to swim in the river, says Willie Levenson, ringleader of the Human Access Project, which he formed to promote swimming in the downtown stretch of the Willamette.
"Everyone can't afford a boat," Levenson says, and docks provide a similar feeling of being on the river. And if the docks were outfitted with ladders and life preservers, he says, they'd provide an easier, safer way to get into the river without disrupting salmon habitat in shallower water.
A new draft study commissioned by Levenson's all-volunteer group recommends that Portland cultivate its underutilized docks to support more swimming in the inner city.
The study by the MIG planning firm examines the potential of five publicly owned docks between the Steel Bridge and Tilikum Crossing: Holman, Duckworth, Firehouse, OMSI, and RiverPlace South. The Human Access Project chipped in $5,000, but most of the study's cost was donated by MIG, which has a significant practice in landscape and parks and recreation design.
There's growing momentum to develop downtown beaches on the river, Levenson says, but those can be costly, requiring support from multiple government agencies and overcoming environmental complications.
Simpler than beaches
Docks are already there and largely underutilized, he says.
It cost his nonprofit less than $500 to add a ladder extending into the water from the Firehouse dock two years ago, he says, and the group is willing to pay for those at the other docks.
Instead of putting up "do not swim" signs that people will ignore, Levenson testified at a recent City Council hearing, why not encourage people to swim where it's safer?
Though environmental groups and some city commissioners say habitat improvements must take priority over encouraging urban beaches in the downtown stretch of the Willamette, Levenson argues that promoting swimming turns people into conservationists.
"If people are in the water, they'll care more about it," he reasoned, such as thinking twice before using pesticides that will wind up in the river. "People protect what they love."
The MIG study suggested at least one safety ladder at each of the docks, along with life rings (aka life preservers). The study also suggested a lifejacket loan station near one of the docks as a pilot project.
Here are some of the issues raised by MIG and the Human Access Project about the five docks:
This was built in 2004 by the Portland Development Commission for kayaks, rowers, and other nonmotorized craft. There's been conflicts between those longtime users since swimmers and sunbathers discovered it, but MIG says that could be addressed via an educational campaign.
"We need to develop a culture of cooperation and sharing this resource," Levenson says.
That may be a moot point for now, though, as the dock is "beyond repair," he says, and slated for removal in mid-July to clear space for an environmental cleanup on the river bottom.
Human Access Project could help raise the $200,000 it might cost for a replacement dock, he says, and supports efforts by those in the nonmotorized boating community to build a new boathouse near OMSI.
"We're all on the same team," he says.
Just north of the Hawthorne Bridge on the eastside, this houses the fire department's rescue boat for emergency response calls.
"The fire bureau is unbelievably tolerant about sharing the dock," Levenson says. The bureau allowed the safety ladder and a locker to store life preservers.
The dock is also used as a takeoff point for the River Huggers swim group and the annual Naked Goddess Swim, both started by the Human Access Project. And it will be used for a second annual Mayoral Swim, started last year when Ted Wheeler joined the fun.
On the eastside between the Burnside and Steel bridges, this dock was named for the popular Trail Blazer center. It was built in 1997 with funding from the Oregon State Marine Board to provide a place for motorized boaters and water taxis. It's little-used for such purposes, according to MIG, but the dock is legally reserved for motorized boats until 2021. Levenson urges the city to renegotiate that requirement, saying it would require little to turn it into a facility for nonmotorized boaters and swimmers. The MIG study suggested seasonal portable restrooms as well.
South Breakwater Dock
This is a seldom-used dock near the shuttered Newport Bay Restaurant, not to be confused with the heavily used dock to the north used by dragonboaters, fishers and others. It's controlled by Prosper Portland, the city urban renewal agency.
It's the largest dock of the five studied and could have the most potential. Levenson is pushing the idea of converting the abandoned seafood restaurant, which was open only during sunny weather, into a year-round joint that sells coffee, burgers, and soup (get it, for the cold weather), with space for dressing rooms that could be used by swimmers. Rails on the dock could easily be removed to make it more accessible for swimmers, he says.
OMSI has used this to moor the USS Blueback submarine, a popular museum attraction, since 1994. MIG found the southern portion of the dock works well for swimmers, and could be branded that way during OMSI off-hours. Levenson says OMSI doesn't actually own the dock, which is in public ownership.
MIG notes that swimming is increasing on the Willamette River, and suggests it's a healthy form of recreation, one that attracts equal numbers of men and women, which the city should encourage.
Portland Parks & Recreation has been nervous about assuring swimmers' safety in the Willamette, and made clear at the recent City Council meeting that its priority is adding parks in East Portland.
Brett Horner, the bureau's planning manager, says the city welcomes the new dock study, but says the city needs to solicit the views of the boating community, which aren't reflected in the study.
It's worth noting that the city doesn't own or manage the Willamette River; the state does, Horner says.
But the park bureau's attitude about swimming downtown is "changing quickly," Levenson says.
"I think a lot of it is the mayor is giving direction to it."
Last summer, when the parks bureau did public outreach tables at OMSI and Portland Community College's Southeast campus, most people didn't think swimming in the river was safe, Horner says.
"People said, are you crazy?" he says. "That was the first reaction."
But public attitudes are changing quickly, he says.
"I think we're going to see more interest in people getting down to the river."
Find out more
n To read the draft MIG dock study: homespunwebsites.com/site/1827huma/MIG_PDXCentralCity_DockSwimmingStudy.pdf
n The River Huggers Swim Team opens its season on the Willamette on June 21. See: humanaccessproject.com/swimming/river_hugger_swim_team
n The Mayoral Swim takes place July 27
n The Big Float takes place July 15. See: humanaccessproject.com/events/the_big_float
nThe Naked Goddess Swim takes place Aug. 5 See: humanaccessproject.com/events/naked_goddess_swim
n To view Willie Levenson's recent testimony at a City Council hearing: youtube.com/watch?v=STx-tsqDETE&feature=youtu.be&t=2748 youtube.com/watch?v=STx-tsqDETE&feature=youtu.be&t=2748