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Graduate students tap Olde Towne St. Helens for design makeover

The city of St. Helens has turned to a group of Portland State University graduate students to study and propose changes to the city's Olde Towne architectural design guidelines.

The four students of the university's school of urban design and planning hope to make improvements to the city's current architectural design guidelines, in part to spur future development.

It is much-needed work, city officials say.

The city's current guidelines are vaguely written and full of errors, said City Planner Jacob Graichen, who has been working for months to fix some of the errors. For developers and building owners in the Olde Towne area, those obtusely written codes could spell confusion when it comes to making changes to their buildings.

'With this work, people will know what to expect [from the city],' Graichen said, adding that his goal was to provide a stable, codified set of guidelines for the city's Olde Towne area.

That historic waterfront area, far from the vehicular hustle of Highway 30 and bounded by Boise Cascade's empty veneer mill manufacturing facility, has long been ripe for redevelopment but has suffered from not having a unifying vision, Graichen said.

A project such as the one PSU Formworks is working on may be the first step in fixing that, he added.

Recently, there have been signs that development in the area may start picking up in the future, with the sale of the Muckle Building to Oregon City-based Norway Development. Many storefronts, however, remain empty.

Victor Sanders is the production lead for the project and a student at PSU's School of Urban Studies and Planning, where he's studying for a master's degree in urban and regional planning.

Sanders said having a spelled-out vision for a historic district is important before moving forward on development.

'I'm really interested in this primarily because … the cultural aspects of a community are very important when it comes to design,' Sanders said.

Sanders and the other students who compose the group will also use the findings as their final project, similar to a thesis. Important for the city, the findings will also become part of a planning proposal for Olde Towne.

Having a codified set of standards regarding windows, height, setbacks and façade will strengthen the city's ability to guide future development, Sanders said.

In order for the city to adopt the plan, the city's Planning Commission must first give its approval and City Council must then sign off on it.

The project will take 20 weeks total to complete, Sanders said. Some of that work has already been done. Members of the Formworks Planning Group said they'll be completely done with their work by June, which coincides with the end of their school term.

There will be two community workshops to discuss the project with interested community members. The workshops will take place on March 31 from 5 to 7 p.m. and April 2 from 1 to 3 p.m. at Plantation House Pizza.

Members of the Formworks team recommend that interested parties visit the group's website at www.sthelensdesign.com.