Once there were valid excuses to steer clear of South Waterfront, the Johnny-comes-lateliest of Portland residential areas. The neighborhood, which did not even exist 20 years ago, was known in its earliest incarnation for soulless condo towers, many of which had the misfortune to open around the Great Recession of 2008, leading to low occupancy rates and a ghost town image that’s been hard to shake. But lo these many years later, the neighborhood’s connections to the rest of the city are far stronger, thanks in part to the many ways you can get there—by bike, foot, MAX, tram, streetcar, kayak, or bus, to name a few.
Things really started to shift for South Waterfront with the opening of the Tilikum Crossing in 2015, the only bridge in the city that’s closed to car traffic. A walk across it is especially nice at nighttime, when the bridge is lit by lights that move with the tides and are controlled by the temperature of the river below: in warmer months, the bridge glows orange and yellow; in December, it’s blue and green.
Pick up picnic supplies at Elephants Delicatessen at the foot of the bridge and make the short walk to the Portland Aerial Tram, which zips doctors, nurses, hospital staffers, and tourists from the terminus at S Moody Avenue up to the main campus of Oregon Health & Science University, with a killer view along the way of Mount Hood and some neighboring peaks. After the round trip, disembark back at river level near OHSU’s Center for Health & Healing, where the members of the March Wellness & Fitness Center do serene laps in the never-too-crowded saline pool; everyone else can grab coffee from the branch of the Daily Café in the building’s lobby or wander over to Bambuza Vietnam Kitchen for bright dishes that zing with lemongrass, fish sauce, and chiles. The South Waterfront Greenway along the river is worth a hang—note the river-inspired public art that lines the walkway, while the splash pad at nearby Elizabeth Caruthers Park is often blessedly uncrowded on hot days (perhaps because the park is so new that its trees don’t yet provide much shade?).
In deference to a residential community that’s still largely made up of busy medical professionals and retirees, this isn’t a nightlife hot spot, and its retail core has been slow to develop. But we’re big fans of the paper goods at Ecru Modern Stationer, which has sweet, well-chosen greeting cards, gifts, and journals in abundance.
As for the future, that’s up in the air. An ambitious plan to develop a huge industrial parcel owned by the Zidell family fell through in 2018, leaving an unsightly gap that would fully connect South Waterfront with downtown Portland if filled in. Plans to put a 10,000-seat amphitheater—or maybe even a baseball stadium—are under discussion, but nothing’s confirmed. All that space was put to good use for pop-up drive-in movies in the pandemic summer of 2020—ironic, given how many ways there are to get to this neighborhood without getting into your car.