Back in late September 2014, Willie Levenson, Ringleader of the Portland-based Human Access Project, was on the Eastbank Esplanade with city planners doing reconnaissance for a river trip the next day. The idea was to pack a boat (the Portland Spirit, actually, which had donated space for the trip) with people eager to scope the Willamette for potential swimming holes—a stunt intended, much like HAP's annual Big Float, to signal-boost the river's swimmability.
Then Levenson looked up, and focused on the dock right in front of him.
"It hit us almost like lightning bolt as soon as we saw it," says Levenson. "This was a swimming hole completed and in the can—all it needed was ladders. I'd rode my bike by it a million times, but once we were on the water's edge it seemed totally clear that this was an amazing, world-class urban swimming hole."
One problem: per an agreement with the Oregon State Marine Board, the floating dock in question, named for former Trail Blazer Kevin Duckworth, had been reserved for water taxis and other motorized boats through the year 2021. (Though you'll see few of those here—probably because boat owners tend to be leery of unsecured public docks.)
The Human Access Project starting advocating to open the dock to swimmers instead, courting city officials then drafting Portland's Central City 2035 Master Plan. Over time, a vision emerged, one at long last unveiled on September 13 by Mayor Ted Wheeler.
“It’s good government to better utilize this $1.5 million asset that has had little use over the last 20 years," said the mayor in a statement. "The more we can get people to the river’s edge and playing in it, the greater connection our citizens will have to our river."
The September 13 event also shared a rendering of the concept, one that—if fully funded (which according to a KGW explainer could run about $200K)—could provide several jumping platforms, a lift for disability access, swim lanes inside the dock perimeter, lifeguards during peak hours, and possibly even swim lockers.
"For $200,000, you'd really be able to do the soup-to-nuts plan," says Levenson. "But for as little as $5,000 you could just add ladders and it'd be ready to go, and safer than many docks in Portland."
The next step for the city will be negotiating an early release from the Marine Board agreement to open the dock prior to 2021; Levenson hopes a new agreement could be worked out as early as next summer's swim season. Whatever happens, he says, the city's continued enthusiasm for public swimming projects like this will be vital to their success. He cites Poet's Beach, a pilot project unveiled earlier this summer just across the river under the 1-5 bridgehead.
"Poet's Beach has been open to the public for the last three years, but Parks coming in gave people license and invitation to really check that area out," Levenson says. "When I went to Poet's Beach and I saw that swim line out there, it really dressed it up. It was like putting a tie on somebody. Psychologically it felt pulled together—it demonstrated to me the power of the city getting behind a swim area."