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Rejoice for Our Riverfront Renaissance

June 19th, 2022 by dk

If the name “Agripac” doesn’t ring a bell for you, you don’t understand what a big deal Eugene’s new Downtown Riverfront Park is. For generations, Agripac had a vegetable processing plant in that quadrant of the city southeast of the Ferry Street Bridge.

Agripac and its cannery next door paid competitive wages in a community that still considered itself primarily agricultural. For those who were not strong enough to work in the forests or the mills, sorting beets, carrots, mushrooms, and more was this town’s version of the American dream. 

Mayor Ruth Bascom was one of the first to dream out loud about a change. She called it Eugene’s “return to the river.” As urban centers across the country turned away from heavy industry as their preferred economic engine, cities found those hulking structures stood between them and their waterways.

We dreamed about picnicking on the southern banks of the Willamette River, but fulfilling that dream has required slow, arduous work over decades.

Some among us wish we still had a local food processing plant. Consider this: We just opened a pavilion that will allow our Farmers Market to operate year round. Days later, we are burying the memory of the facility that provided food from farmers year round.

Like the Willamette River itself, our history around its edges ambles through us in almost every direction. 

Alton Baker Park preserved a good section of the riverfront on the northern side, removing any urgency to do anything on the southern side. Valley River Center came along to pull commerce across the river, leaving downtown a virtual wasteland for decades. Eugene reimagined its downtown as a pedestrian mall, which only made things worse.

During Peter DeFazio’s first term in Congress, he secured federal funding that would allow the Ferry Street Bridge to carry more traffic. Local activists passed a local ordinance forbidding such an expansion, so the funds were used instead to build the pedestrian bridge that bears DeFazio’s name.

Heavy industry continued moving away from downtown. The Register-Guard moved its printing press north of the river. Eugene Water & Electric Board bought property on the northwestern edge of town.

Agripac announced plans to consolidate its facilities and move its processing north. Eugene bought the carcass left behind, but it remained behind chain link for years, eventually making way for the new federal courthouse. Contaminated soil was remediated or trucked away. Streets were realigned. Downtown began to stir from its sad slumber.

Another former mayor, Brian Obie, began investing more heavily in the 5th Street Public Market, which had once been a chicken processing plant. Stephanie Pearl Kimmel opened Marché, making downtown’s northeast corner a destination.

EWEB began making plans to leave downtown. The city agreed to buy EWEB’s waterfront property and then sought a developer. The University of Oregon Foundation was chosen, but it proved too much. A Portland firm took its place. Negotiations continue, parcel by parcel, but buildings should begin appearing in the months ahead.

EWEB’s steam plant is being redeveloped by a local team, but every new detail is daunting. The city identified parkland to be part of the development early, but this required closing portions of the Ruth Bascom Riverbank Path for more than a year, pulling the path away from the river’s edge.

The Downtown Riverfront Park is open now, in time to host the fan festival during OREGON22, the 10-day World Athletics Championships in July. Restaurants and other amenities are still on the drawing board, but looking more certain as timelines tighten.

I’ve left out many twists and turns along the way, but the point is this. Eugene’s riverfront renaissance has been a long time coming. It’s worth celebrating.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Wednesday and Sunday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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