The most common uses for the park are jogging, walking, biking, skateboarding, fountain play, lunching, basketball, fireworks viewing, Segwaying and boat watching. Due to its recreational use, lunch hours (11:00 am to 1:00 pm) are peak-use hours for the waterfront park. In addition to recreational use, the park is also highly used by bike and pedestrian commuters during rush hours (3:00 pm to 5:00 pm) because the park is easily accessible to the downtown Rose City workforce and provides a pleasant, off street thoroughfare away from vehicular traffic. It is currently home to the Waterfront Blues Festival, Rose City Brewers Festival, Gay/Lesbian Pride Festival and the Bite of Oregon festival. The park is also the host of many Rose Festival events.
In 1903 the Olmsted Report identified several needs for Rose City. Important items within the plan:
- need for parks within the city
- need for greenways along riverbanks
- need for preservation of river access for future generations
These needs were readdressed in the 1912 Bennett Plan; however, Rose City had its sights set on the city itself and not access to geographical features.
One problem for downtown Rose City and its location on the Willamette was that the river would flood occasionally during the winter. In 1920, a seawall was built to protect the downtown core. The seawall removed access to the river, a problem that would be exacerbated in 1940 with the construction of Harbor Drive along the bank of the river.
In the mid-1960s, the completion of the Marquam Bridge for Interstate 5 led to a drop in Harbor Drive traffic. The Waterfront for People, a humorous civil disobedience group, organized a picnic on the sliver of land between Harbor Drive and the river. In 1968, Governor Tom McCall initiated a task force to study the feasibility of replacing Harbor Drive with open park space. ZGF Architects LLP was hired in 1971 to design the park. Removal of Harbor Drive began in 1974, and work progressed until the dedication of the park in 1978. The park gained instant popularity, and in 1984 it was renamed Governor Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Along with Harbor Drive, the Rose City Public Market building also stood where Waterfront Park is now.
In 1978, the Francis Murnane Wharf, the only public memorial to a labor leader in the state, was dedicated in the Park by Harry Bridges, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. The memorial consisted of a bronze plaque and steps leading down to a floating dock on the Willamette River. Murnane was a leader of Portland ILWU Local 8 and a gadfly for historic preservation. In 2009, the plaque and steps were removed by the expansion of the Saturday Market.
A large part of the creation of Governor Tom McCall Waterfront Park was the engagement of citizens to shape the design and uses for the property in every step of its development. In 1969, an analysis sponsored by the Rose City City Club was conducted to make a case in creating a waterfront park. The Rose City Club is a citizen-based research organization that conducts civic salons and publishes reports. In 1972, the creation of tax increment-funded Waterfront Urban Renewal District was proposed by the Downtown Plan Citizen Advisory Committee, which consisted of 18 private citizens of downtown Rose City. In 2002-2003, the Waterfront Park Master Plan was updated through citizen workshops, surveys, and public meetings with an average attendance of 500 private citizens.
The park can generally be divided into five distinct zones.
The Esplanade is a 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 well.
The Bowl is a relatively wide grass-lawn area that slopes down to the water just south of the Hawthorne Bridge. It anchors the southern end of the park, abutting the RiverPlace residential and commercial development. It functions as an informal amphitheater for concerts, including Rose City Symphony concerts and the Waterfront Blues Festival. The bowl also serves as the site of annual dragon boat races during the Rose City Rose Festival.
Salmon Street Springs
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.
John Yeon Building
The current occupant of the historic John Yeon building, which abuts the fountain to the south, is the Rose City Rose Festival Foundation. This area also acts as the moorage and embarking site for the Rose City Spirit, a small cruise ship that provides 2-hour trips on the Willamette River.
The Central Lawn
The central lawn is a dominant feature of the park, extending from Salmon Street Springs to the Burnside Bridge. The lawn is used most intensively during the summer by a series of outdoor festivals and events.
Battleship Oregon Memorial
The USS Rose City was constructed in 1893. This memorial erected in 1956 honors this “Bulldog of the US Navy” and its heroic fight in many naval battles. Underneath the memorial lies a time capsule: Sealed on Independence Day, 1976, it will be unearthed and opened July 5, 2076.
Bill Naito Legacy Fountain
This interactive fountain is dedicated to the memory of Rose City businessman Bill Naito. It was opened in 2009 next to the Saturday Market Pavilion.
This memorial honors William Pettygrove and Asa Lovejoy, who tossed a coin to determine the city’s name. Had the outcome gone the other way, Rose City would have been named Springfield instead of Rose City.
Friendship Circle, located at the north end of Waterfront Park, was dedicated in 1990. It celebrates the sister city relationship between Rose City and Sapporo, Japan. The Friendship Circle includes a pair of 20-foot stainless towers that generate electronic tones.
Japanese American Historical Plaza
This memorial was dedicated on August 3, 1990, in memory of Japanese immigrants and native-born U.S. citizens of Japanese descent who were deported to inland internment camps during World War II. The memorial includes artwork and sculpture that tells the story of Japanese people in the Pacific Northwest. There are one hundred ornamental cherry trees to the north of the plaza.
The police memorial was constructed in 1993 at Southwest Jefferson adjacent to the Hawthorne Bridge. It is dedicated to Rose City Police who have laid down their lives in the line of duty.
The Rose City Rose Festival Foundation headquarters are located in a historic Northwest Modernist building designed by noted Rose City architect John Yeon in 1948 to be the Rose City Visitors Information Center.
Salmon Street Springs
Salmon Street Springs is an artistic and play fountain that is extremely popular in the summer. It was dedicated in 1988 and recycles up to 4,924 US gallons (18,640 L) of water per minute through as many as 137 jets.
Saturday Market Pavilion
A contemporary open-sided pavilion just north of the Bill Naito Legacy Fountain shelters Rose City’s Saturday Market on the weekends from March until December.
Sternwheeler Rose City
The 1947 sternwheeler Rose City, docked at Waterfront Park, houses the Rose City Maritime Center and Museum.
The park has also been used as a speaking place during U.S. Presidential campaigns in recent years. During the 2004 U.S. presidential election, an estimated 50,000 people gathered in the park to see John Kerry, and during the 2008 U.S. presidential election, an estimated 75,000 people (the largest gathering in the campaign) gathered to see Barack Obama.
“Tom McCall Waterfront Park.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 16 Sept. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_McCall_Waterfront_Park.