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What's in a name? St. Helens rechristens 'Old Town'

Downtown to be officially referred to as 'Riverfront District'

Photo Credit: MARK MILLER - Downtown St. Helens, looking north along South 1st Street. The historic heart of the city has traditionally been called 'Old Town,' sometimes spelled 'Olde Towne.' However, the St. Helens City Council opted Wednesday, Nov. 19, to rename the neighborhood as the 'Riverfront District.'Old Town is history.

That’s what a resolution adopted by the St. Helens City Council on Wednesday, Nov. 19, accomplishes, as far as the St. Helens municipal government is concerned. The resolution directs the city to stop using the terms “Old Town” and “Olde Towne,” names by which the downtown area of St. Helens has traditionally been known, and replace references to them in the city code with a new name: “Riverfront District.”

City Planner Jacob Graichen, who presented a draft of the resolution to the council at Wednesday’s afternoon work session, said renaming the district is appropriate because of the city’s pending purchase of a parcel of industrial land south of what has been called “Old Town.”

“If you want to add some pomp and circumstance to it, you could say that this resolution is a dawn of a new era,” said Graichen. “Because it really makes sense. Right now, it is ‘Old Town,’ because it’s where St. Helens originated, but with the veneer plant stuff going on, what is ‘Old Town’ now could be part-old, part-new, and thus, ‘Old Town’ becomes outdated.”

Photo Credit: MARK MILLER - One of several signs in St. Helens referencing 'Old Town.'Graichen said the city will not be replacing past references to “Old Town” or “Olde Towne,” other than in the city code.

“It gives us kind of a bookmark [for] when this change occurred,” Graichen said.

“We’re not going to change any of the historical documents that refer to Old Town,” Mayor Randy Peterson affirmed after the meeting. “It’s just going to kind of be from this point on, it’ll be called ‘Riverfront District.’”

Peterson acknowledged that “it’ll take a while” before the new name catches on.

“It’ll probably take a year or two before that gets real prevalent, but people will still call it ‘Old Town’ or ‘downtown,’” he said.

At Peterson’s suggestion, the resolution also makes note of a rough boundary between the rechristened Riverfront District and Houlton, the city’s other major commercial district, which runs along Columbia Boulevard and St. Helens Street west of the historic downtown. Graichen and the council agreed that DeSpains Hill — which slopes downward east of Lewis & Clark Elementary School — is the dividing feature.

“Traditionally, the top of that is Houlton District, and then when you get to the bottom of it, you’re in Riverfront District now,” Peterson explained after the meeting.

Houlton used to be an independent town before it was annexed by St. Helens more than a century ago.

Council President Doug Morten congratulated Graichen on his work drafting the resolution, although he said he would prefer to call the Houlton and Old Town areas “uptown” and “downtown.”

Councilor Susan Conn disagreed.

“The opinion I heard expressed years ago is that it was divisive,” Conn said of the “uptown” and “downtown” delineation.

The council adopted the resolution making “Riverfront District” the official name of St. Helens’ downtown area at its evening meeting on Wednesday.

Photo Credit: FILE - The industrial land where Boise Cascade Co. formerly operated a veneer plant south of downtown St. Helens, along the Columbia River. The city has entered into an agreement with Boise Cascade to buy the property, which could be redeveloped as an extension of the downtown area.The city is planning to spend nearly $3 million to acquire the 22.1-acre brownfield property owned by Boise Cascade Co. in a land deal expected to close this year. The purchase has been pending since February.

In May, the city brought in a group of consultants from the American Institute of Architects to evaluate the site and present a design concept. The Sustainable Design Assessment Team, as the group was called, recommended the property be developed as a mixed-use neighborhood and considered an extension of the downtown area.

Peterson said the old veneer plant site is geographically part of the new Riverfront District, and its purchase provided an “impetus” for the council to ditch the “Old Town” name.

“We certainly want whatever goes in there to fit in with what’s down there,” Peterson said. “But we also want that to be an incentive for the people who own the older buildings down there to fix them up and get them rented out.”

Editor's note: A previous version of this story contained an inconsistency regarding the new official name of downtown St. Helens. The story has been corrected.

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