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The 6-Year Path to Audrey McCall Beach

October 9, 2017

In May 2011, Human Access Project, in an effort to create an improved access point to Portland's largest public open space, the Willamette River, began a project to re-envision what HAP viewed as an excellent potential beach park. The site had many pros - great access off the eastside esplanade, a walkable distance from the central eastside, great views of downtown and sunsets, and just off a major bike commuter route for people crossing the Hawthorne Bridge from downtown.

The biggest challenge was that the site was blanketed with discarded concrete chunks and rubble. How did it get there? Who knows (who cares!) HAP was determined to remove it. The concrete was an ugly eyesore that in HAP's eyes communicated that our city did not care about our river.  Further, the site was not a human habitat (people would not want to hang out there). For HAP, a key to re-connecting people to our river is creating spaces where people can enjoy the river at the river’s edge.

In May 2011 HAP was just forming as an organization. We had completed our first The Big Float the summer before and were preparing for TBF2.  HAP had nearly zero dollars in our bank account but we were rich in our ability to dream and our willingness to work hard and hustle.  HAP imagined that with the concrete chunks removed our community may look at this potential beach area differently, like a potential beach!

On the most base level it was exciting to feel like an underdog and take on what seemed like an impossible task, to demonstrate that it was not necessary to spend millions of dollars to uplift areas of our river that have been mistreated and/or neglected.  Ultimately, HAP wanted to illustrate the old adage of "How do you eat an Elephant?  One bite at a time."

So, what is the first bite when you want to remove concrete chunks from a riverbank? Turns out step one is simply getting approval.  Very simply, and surprisingly, permission was required to remove the discarded chunks of concrete even though the benefit was so obvious.  Not one, not two, but eight separate agencies had to sign off to allow HAP to remove concrete chunks.  Eventually HAP did get permission from all eight agencies with the stipulation that heavy mechanized equipment could not be used.  So how do you remove concrete chunks off a riverbank without heavy equipment?  Manual labor.  Many hands make light(er) work and the Inverness Jail Inmate work crew unit came to the rescue.  Armed with an ATV and a 10 person work crew and a handful of HAP volunteers we began our Herculean task.

Over the next four years HAP volunteers and the Inverness Inmate Work Crew worked hand in hand to remove concrete.   It was very common for the inmates to express their satisfaction of this restoration work.  We all know humans have a great capacity to screw nature up - it feels great to unscrew it up. The inmates who participated in the cleanups not only got a day out of confinement, they earned reduced time and it was routine to hear expressions of how proud the crew was of their work and sharing their desire to bring their family back when they got out.   Both Columbia Sportswear and Travel Oregon also lent a big hand bringing out an army of volunteers for two of the four years of our work.

In total, 19 tons of concrete were manually removed from the site!  After three summers of concrete removal, HAP received a reward. In the summer of 2014, HAP slowly but surely observed humans discovering the beach and using it! Turns out HAP's intuition was correct - removing the concrete chunks did create a human habitat.  Despite the lack of signage, and challenging access, this unofficial beach began getting use.

In May 2015, HAP was successful advocating with Mayor Hales to budget $300,000 to pursue a design for creating a beach at this site.  This past summer the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability rolled out the result of this funding, a great plan that calls for a nice balance of habitat restoration and a place for humans to splash and play including a buoy swim line (like at Poet's Beach) and three island docks for humans to swim out to!

As HAP went through the concrete removal it occurred to us that we needed a working name for this place.  The idea surfaced to nickname this place Audrey McCall Beach after Governor Tom McCall's wife Audrey.  The thought was that Tom McCall (and all leaders in the spotlight) typically receive the lion’s share of the credit for successes.  In the case of Tom McCall, all of the amazing, creative results he achieved as Oregon's most famous Governor could not have been done without the silent collaboration of his wife Audrey. But this is universally true. Behind every amazing leader is typically an amazing life partner who is in the background. HAP reached out to Tom and Audrey's only remaining descendant, Tad, seeking approval for the naming.  Not only did Tad and his family love the idea, a year later Tad joined our Board of Trustees and has become one of HAP's strongest boosters.

Friday, October 13th at 9:45am HAP will celebrate with Portland General Electric (and other partners including Mayor Wheeler's Office, Proper Portland, and Bureau of Planning and Sustainability) to commemorate PGE's completion of an environmental remediation project at Audrey McCall Beach.

The result of this project (with a budget in excess of $1 million) will bring significant uplift to the human habitat of Audrey McCall Beach and an improvement to juvenile salmon habitat.  PGE has removed all remaining concrete chunks from the beach area, which were replaced with a nice layer of river rock both on the beach up to the vegetation line and in the river.  The slope of the bank in water has been reduced significantly creating more shallow areas that are more suitable for younger children.

The work of PGE will lay the foundation for the future use of this beach. Now there is no question about its suitability for humans to get to the river’s edge and play in the water.  Expect many more people to discover and use “Audrey Beach” next summer!

I hope you can join us for a Toe's in the River ceremony Friday morning Oct. 13th. Bring a pair of flip-flops and dip your toes in the water with Mayor Wheeler and PGE's new CEO Maria Pope. It will be a historic day for Portland. 

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