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Committee meets on veneer property possibilities


St. Helens, Boise Cascade moving ahead with land deal

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - St. Helens City Administrator John Walsh, center, takes development project participants and members of the public on a tour of the Boise Cascade Co. property along the Columbia River Tuesday, Feb. 18. The company, which operated a veneer plant on the site just south of Old Town St. Helens until 2008, has agreed to sell the property to St. Helens. Tuesday's workshop and site visit were among the first steps toward determining how the 17 acres of land could be used.A steering committee tasked with beginning the process of envisioning how an industrial property in the heart of St. Helens could be developed met this week to share ideas and tour the site.

St. Helens city councilors, staff, volunteers and representatives from the American Institute of Architects discussed community needs and concepts for how the former veneer plant property owned by Boise Cascade Co. could be repurposed if the city and company follow through on a purchase and sale agreement signed earlier this month.

The city has eyed the 17-acre property, which stretches along the Columbia River directly south of Old Town, for years. While the land is zoned for heavy industrial use, operations at the veneer plant ended in 2008 and Boise Cascade has removed its vehicles and buildings from the site, leaving the tract mostly empty.

At the workshop in the St. Helens City Hall council chambers Tuesday, Feb. 18, participants spitballed ideas for how to use the land if it is acquired.

City Administrator John Walsh and planner Jacob Graichen indicated a top priority for the city will be to establish transportation connections on the property. Graichen said a planning document already states that South First Street, which runs north and south through Old Town, and Plymouth Street, which stretches east and west from McCormick Park to the southern end of the veneer plant property, should be linked at some point.

The center of the debate, though, is how the 17 acres of space the city plans to purchase should be used.

Suggestions at the meeting ranged from constructing a maritime center as a home for historic ships, as advocated by St. Helens Tourism Director Chris Finks, or a convention center to provide space for special events, as St. Helens resident John Brewington suggested, to more ambitious or whimsical ideas, like building a terminal for ferry service between St. Helens and Ridgefield, Wash., or leaving the land undeveloped as green space.

A compromise between those who want to see the property used as public space and those who would prefer to see it developed may be possible. Brewington said the northern end of the property could be set aside and landscaped as an extension of Columbia View Park, across from City Hall.

“I think there’s a desire, at least of some people, to see the park expanded into a larger ... area for community gatherings and festivals,” Brewington said.

Although the property was used for industrial purposes until late last decade, Walsh said environmental assessments of the site have been positive.

“This site is relatively clean for its history,” said Walsh.

The steering committee also discussed the potential for redevelopment of the Boise Inc. paper mill site southwest of the Boise Cascade property Tuesday. Boise wants to pull out of St. Helens altogether, Walsh said, and the paper mill site could be acquired by the city as well.

“The city’s kind of considering that factor,” Walsh said. “We haven’t come to any conclusions whatsoever. We’re still in the very early diligence process. But you start to look at it from a bigger, more global perspective, you can kind of see how things could tie back into the greater community.”