The Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade is 1.5 miles long, extending north from the Hawthorne Bridge, past the Morrison and Burnside Bridges, to the Steel Bridge with connections to eastside neighborhoods as well as across the river to Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park.
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About the Eastbank Esplanade
The historic nature of the Burnside Bridge prohibits any structure from adding any weight to the bridge: the connector that connects the Esplanade to the Burnside Bridge does not lean on the bridge, it merely 'kisses' the bridge. The connector is held in place by pilings sunk into a huge concrete base and the tower structure bears the weight of the stair truss.
Designed by Mayer/Reed, landscape architects, there are 13 urban markers at key locations along the Esplanade that mark the eastside city street grid. Mayer/Reed also designed 22 interpretive panels that are attached to the markers. The panels provide information about the river and the rich history of the area - from the building of Portland’s bridges to the development of Portland’s eastside. Each marker also includes unique lighting to illuminate the walkway at night.
The Esplanade is a demonstration project for improved habitat areas for fish and wildlife and riverbank restoration. In places, the riverbank has been reshaped with grading that allows for shallow habitat. Bio-engineering techniques use native vegetation and other areas pre-treat I-5 runoff before it enters the river. (All this is a unique feat for a river that seasonally fluctuates 30 feet in water depth.) The plantings also minimize the need for riprap rock for erosion control. 280 trees and 43,695 shrubs were planted along the Esplanade, mostly native plants of Oregon.
The construction timeline for the Esplanade, especially work that had to be done in the river, was timed carefully to be sensitive to fish migration seasons. Several large 'root wads' were trucked to the site from Central Oregon and were anchored in place along the riverbank to provide important habitat areas for fish. Wildlife that inhabits this area includes beavers, ducks, geese, herons, steelhead, and salmon.
To the north of the Morrison Bridge, the Esplanade provides a lookout over what looks like strange rock formations, but which is actually a large accumulation of concrete. The concrete was dumped in this location by cement trucks washing their truck beds in the river during the building of the Morrison Bridge.
Four pieces of public art, created by RIGGA - a group of local artists, are featured between the Morrison Bridge and the floating walkway. The Echo Gate by Ean Eldred, located beneath the Morrison Bridge, is a sculpture that 'echoes' the pier buildings and Shanghai tunnels of Portland's past. It is made of copper plate that was heat-formed, fitted, and welded. Two pieces of art sit on a concrete wall that is a remnant from the bulkhead of the Port of Portland's Terminal 2 and serves as a reminder of early maritime commerce along Portland’s eastside. The Ghost Ship by James Harrison, sited on the south end of the wall, is a grand lantern made of copperplate, copper bar, a stainless steel substructure, and fit with hundreds of prismatic pieces of art glass. It pays homage to the many ships that have come through Portland, and the ones that have gone down in crossing the Columbia River Bar. At the north end, Stack Stalk, also by Ean Eldred, is a hybrid beacon - part masthead, part wheat stem, part smokestack. Made of rolled steel tubes and a stainless steel basket, it suspends a Japanese glass fishing float in the sky as a reminder of the river's connection with the Pacific Ocean. The final piece, the Alluvial Wall by Peter Nylen, clings to a concrete retaining wall and echoes the natural shape of the river before Portland was Portland. It alludes to the interwoven layers of the river’s pre-industrial geology and human artifacts; an amalgam of sedimentation and erosion formed of cold-forged steel plate with bronze castings lodged between its layers.
At 1,200 feet, the floating walkway is the longest one of its kind in the United States and offers the sensation of walking on water. The adjoining 120-ft public boat dock provides moorage for recreational boaters as well as space for a future river taxi and other commercial uses.
The Steel Bridge RiverWalk, attached about 30 feet above the Willamette River, offers pedestrians and bicyclists a new route across the river and provides visitors on the eastside with a stunning overlook from which to view the downtown cityscape.
Learn more about swimming in the Willamette and Columbia Rivers
Swimming in the City’s two major rivers can be fun, refreshing, and can help keep you fit, especially in the warm weather months (July-September). Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R) recognizes that interest in this activity is increasing, especially with the completion of the Big Pipe project, which has substantially improved water quality in major sections of the Willamette River.
Although they may look like calm, peaceful places most of the year, our rivers are active, living bodies of water and are in constant states of change. Before swimming, please remember:
- Water levels go up and down
- Currents change depending on the tide, river level and wind
- Branches, debris, and rocks move around on and under the surface
- Boats and jet skis move around over the surface
- Water temperatures change seasonally, with cold water most likely between September and June
- Banks can be uneven, rocky, slippery, and have submerged drop-offs
- Sewage overflows are extremely rare but still possible. Environmental Services issues alerts on its homepage when they occur.
- The lower Willamette River is part of a designated Superfund clean-up site (between the Broadway Bridge and Sauvie Island), and two of its sites should not be entered for swimming: the Willamette Cove and Gasco sites.
The State of Oregon’s Department of State Lands has jurisdiction over the Willamette River (nearly all areas below elevation 18, which is the ordinary high-water mark). Swimming is allowed at your own risk.
Please obey all rules and regulations posted.
River Swimming Safety Tips
- Know your limits: it is possible to jump off a dock, paddle around and get out without being a strong swimmer. But don’t find yourself halfway across the river in trouble because you’ve run out of energy. Swimming in the City’s rivers requires an intermediate to advanced level of skill at a minimum. Can you swim half a mile in a pool without stopping? You will need that level of strength and ability to be safe. If you are not that strong a swimmer, wear a Personal Flotation Device (PFD). Fins help too.
- Know the water: currents in the City’s rivers vary based on rainfall and the tide. Wind may cause choppiness, making swimming challenging even for the strongest of swimmers. Know the weather forecast and avoid swimming during storms, in strong winds and when there is lightning. Do not swim when sewage is being released, which can happen – particularly during and after heavy storms.
- River temperatures vary. Be particularly careful May through June when air temperatures are in the 80’s but river temperature may be in the 50’s. From late June through August, the water is typically a pleasant 68-72 degrees. Temperatures start to drop fast come September. Limit your time in cold water. If you swim during cold weather (below 68 degrees), wear a wet suit or other thermal protection. Check the Willamette River's conditions at the Bureau of Environmental Services site or U.S. Geological Survey site.
- Don’t swim alone: have a safety paddler whenever possible--for visibility and safety there is no substitute for a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) or kayak paddler. At the very least, swim with a buddy.
- Be visible and audible: carry a safety whistle and wear a brightly-colored swim cap. Use a brightly colored floating Safety Buoy. This bright orange, floating dry bag is helpful for visibility, and in case you need to rest for a few minutes and float. You can also carry personal items inside.
- Don't swim in the dark. Just don’t.
- Swim close to shore. Channel crossing is more dangerous than you might think. Tug boats, barges, and motorboats are not looking for swimmers and may not see you. Even jet skiers often don’t see swimmers. Stay close to shore where it’s safer.
- Don’t swallow the water. Try to avoid getting river water in your mouth. Shower thoroughly with soap and warm water after swimming. Don’t swim in the rare instances when an algae bloom is present.
- Learn CPR: In the time it might take for paramedics to arrive, your CPR skills could make a difference in someone's life.
- No swimming under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. They can impair your judgment and put you at risk. Swimming under the influence is a major contributing factor in many drowning deaths.
- Practice ‘leave no trace’ swimming: pack out what you pack in, and consider bringing a plastic bag along when you come out to play in the river. That way, you can pick up a little extra trash on your way out and contribute to the health and beauty of one of Portland's largest public spaces.
- Be respectful of our dedicated public safety officials: obey all river security and safety personnel, including the Multnomah County River Patrol, Portland Police, Coast Guard, and PP&R’s Park Rangers.
How to Enjoy River Beaches Safely
Swimming and wading are allowed on the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. However, in most cases, there are no lifeguards on duty. Beach users swim at their own risk. Parents are urged to carefully watch children near the water. The river can have swift currents and water depths can vary. Some safety suggestions:
- Never swim alone. Always practice the buddy system while in the water.
- Always enter water feet first. There are sharp rocks and possibly glass present--always wear water shoes.
- Know the terrain. Be aware that the river bed can drop off rapidly and can have a strong current. There may be hidden obstacles in natural water sites including floating debris, logs or underwater boulders.
- Learn to swim. Formal swimming lessons can protect young children from drowning. However, even when children have had formal swimming lessons, constant, careful supervision is necessary when children are in or around the water. Click here for information about PP&R’s pools and swim programs.
- Watch waders or swimmers in or around the water. Designate a responsible adult who can swim and knows CPR to watch swimmers in or around water, especially children. The supervisor should not be involved in any other distracting activity (such as reading, or talking on the phone) while watching children.
- Use life jackets (or other personal flotation devices – PFDs). Do not use air-filled or foam toys, such as "water wings", "noodles", or inner-tubes, in place of life jackets. These toys are not designed to keep swimmers safe.
- Learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and basic first aid. These skills could save someone’s life.
- Never dive or jump off bridges. Winter storms can shift underwater boulders, creating summer diving hazards where none existed the year before.
Keep in mind there is no guarantee that following these guidelines will keep you 100% safe. Swimming can be risky, like any other outdoor sport: biking, skiing, hiking, and others. By swimming in the Willamette or Columbia Rivers, you assume the responsibility for that risk.
Size in acres
The Eastbank Esplanade has been an important part of the long-term vision for downtown Portland. Early city planners included the park in the 1988 Central City Plan. At the direction of City Council in 1993, work began on developing a master plan to guide the design and construction of the Eastbank Esplanade. The City formed a citizen Eastbank Riverfront Project Advisory Committee (PAC) to provide project oversight to City staff. The PAC included members of adjacent neighborhoods, the Central Eastside Industrial Council, landowners, river and environmental enthusiasts, and long-time parks activists. Hargreaves Associates, landscape architects based in San Francisco, was selected as the lead consultant.
Completed in January 1994, the Eastbank Master Plan described an esplanade with docks, piers, overlooks, a plaza for festivals and gatherings, floating walkways, fountains, public art, and connections to the neighborhoods and Portland’s bridges. The Esplanade would connect the east and west sides of the Central City around its central feature – the Willamette River. Construction of the Esplanade began in October 1998 and was completed in May 2001.
The Esplanade was named after Mayor Vera Katz in November 2004 to honor her vision and leadership for Portland - which included support for the construction of the esplanade. A bronze sculpture of the mayor by Bill Bane was installed on the plaza at the south end of the esplanade in June 2006.