St. Helens OKs commercial, residential uses on old veneer mill property

Boise Cascade says they want to keep site industrial
by: Photo by Kelly Moyer, LOCATION MATTERS – St. Helens's city leaders hope a new overlay zone may someday transform the Boise Cascade veneer mill property, picture here in the background behind St. Helens' public waterfront park, into a thriving mix of businesses and homes.

A 'floating zone' designed to entice mixed-use developers to St. Helens' waterfront district has gained unanimous support from the St. Helens City Council.

St. Helens councilors approved the new Waterfront Redevelopment Overlay Zone at their regular meeting April 1.

'This is the city being proactive to potential developers in what is essentially an extension of downtown,' said St. Helens assistant city planner, Jacob Graichen.

The new overlay zone applies to a 20-acre site in the heart of St. Helens' Olde Towne, on the banks of the Columbia River. Zoned for industrial use, the site is home to Boise Cascade's shuttered veneer mill. The new overlay zone will give Boise Cascade more options should it sell the property.

'Mixed-use was not allowed under the current zoning,' Graichen said, adding that, had Boise Cascade wanted to sell to commercial/residential developers, they would have 'had to go through a long, drawn-out process.'

The council's decision doesn't tie Boise Cascade's hands, Graichen explained. The company could still use the land for industrial purposes or could sell to another industrial developer. Or - and this is the direction most people present at last week's council meeting seemed to favor - they could sell the property to a developer who would put in a mix of condominiums and storefronts, blending the prime waterfront property into the rest of St. Helens' Olde Towne.

'It's a development tool,' St. Helens Economic Development Director Skip Baker told councilors. 'This is truly just an option. They could continue to use it as industrial.'

Despite this, Boise Cascade has voiced opposition to the overlay zone. In a letter to city councilors, Bruce Cartmel, the company's western Oregon regional manager, said it is 'unlikely' that his company would utilize the overlay zone.

'Boise Cascade has no plans at this time to change the long-term use of its industrial property adjacent to downtown St. Helens,' Cartmel said. 'Although our plant in St. Helens is currently curtailed due to the severe decline in the nation's housing market, we believe that as the housing market improves we may have a need to reopen the plant.'

Councilor Patrick Martyn asked Graichen and Baker what would happen if Boise Cascade sold the property - or a portion of the property - and the new owner utilized the overlay zone for mixed-use, then wanted to sell the site to an industrial developer in the future.

'Once the overlay has been implemented and the development is vested (completed), it can't go back (to industrial),' Graichen told Martyn.

St. Helens Mayor Randy Peterson said he favored the overlay zone and added that the city had been trying to help Boise Cascade.

'Usually a developer comes in and wants this, but here we are giving them the option,' Peterson said. 'But Boise's saying there are things in this overlay district they don't want.'

Many present at last week's council meeting were in favor of reinventing the site as a mixed-use development and said getting rid of the industrial site could help revitalize the city's downtown.

Ken Gates owns the Plantation House, a restaurant located just a few blocks from the Boise Cascade site.

'When I moved here three years ago, I never understood why this site was being used to store logs,' Gates said. 'I think we need to look at the gem that is St. Helens and (having mixed-use on the Boise Cascade site) would bring more people to downtown and support the city's economic development.'

Bonnie Gibbons used to own an art gallery in the city's Olde Towne, and lives above the site with her husband, Steve.

'I'm absolutely for this,' Gibbons said of the overlay district. 'This is not tying Boise's hands … and it is what this downtown area desperately needs.'

Graichen said Monday that the city council still needs to go through a second reading of the ordinance and that, barring any opposition from the state - something Graichen doesn't anticipate - the property's owners would be able to utilize the overlay zone as early as this May.