SDAT member: 'Get extremely excited about what you're capable of'

by: MARK MILLER - Sustainable Design Assessment Team leader Mike Davis (left foreground) and St. Helens City Administrator John Walsh (right foreground) cross South First Street in Old Town St. Helens after the team introduced itself and explained the scope of their work at a public forum in the Columbia Theatre Monday, May 12. The team spent three days in St. Helens this week hearing from community members and city officials, touring the city and the waterfront property it plans to acquire, and coming up with a list of recommendations for what St. Helens should do to develop the site and promote itself as an attractive place to live, visit and do business.A team of experts convened by the American Institute of Architects to advise St. Helens on what to do with a strip of waterfront property it intends to purchase this year is recommending an ambitious array of mixed-use developments, tourist-friendly attractions, pedestrian boardwalks and trails, and more for the site.

The Sustainable Design Assessment Team presented its recommendations, along with several concept drawings of what the former Boise Cascade Co. veneer plant site along the Columbia River south of Old Town St. Helens could look like if it is developed as the team suggests, at a public forum in the Columbia Theatre on South First Street.

by: FILE PHOTO - The Boise Cascade Co. property where the Idaho-based company operated a veneer mill before its closure amid the economic recession. Boise Cascade and the city of St. Helens signed a purchase and sale agreement for the site earlier this year.The centerpiece of the waterfront development proposed by SDAT would be a civic park or plaza, from which a fishing pier would extend into the river.

“This is the destination,” said Mike Davis, a Boston architect who served as the six-person team’s leader. “This is the place where you want people to want to come.”

In the team’s concept, a public marina with 60 to 80 boat slips, multipurpose buildings that could host open-air festivals and markets, and a small hotel or inn to accommodate visitors from out of town would be adjacent to the civic space.

The main tourist attraction would be a row of antique ships berthed in the river in between Columbia View Park to the north and the envisioned pier to the south, along a riverfront boardwalk.

“People would say that this was kind of the most fabulous collection of historic vessels ever,” Davis said. “And this is one of the reasons why people would want to come to this site: to see these vessels.”

SDAT feels the northern portion of the veneer property should be developed as an extension of Old Town, Davis said.

But from south of the civic space and marina the team imagines, where there is a slight bend in the shoreline, the proposed boardwalk would end and the focus of development would be on providing public access to the water, team members said. In this section of the veneer property, SDAT proposes mixed-use developments, such as apartments, offices or even condominiums.

Davis stressed that the developments being proposed would not block the river views of homes on the bluff that overlooks the site. He displayed a concept drawing he said was based on computer modeling to show that, while the muddy flat of the veneer property would be replaced with two- and three-story buildings, trees, and walking paths, bluff residents would still be able to see the Columbia flowing past the city.

by: COURTESY OF THE CITY OF ST. HELENS - A map of the properties owned by Boise Cascade Co. and Boise Inc. that the city of St. Helens is looking to acquire. The Sustainable Design Assessment Team was tasked with looking at how these lands could be developed and utilized, although it focused most of its attention on the Boise Cascade property along the Columbia River, shown here in bright green.While the focus of Wednesday’s presentation, as well as SDAT’s work in St. Helens from Monday to Wednesday, was on what could be done with the veneer property — for which St. Helens and Boise Cascade have reached an agreement under which the company is expected to sell the land to the city later this year — the team also looked at St. Helens as a whole and suggested several potentially drastic changes elsewhere in the city.

Nathan West, who is the community and economic development director for the city of Port Angeles, Washington, and Astrid Sykes, a Los Angeles landscape architect, referred to ongoing city projects intended to improve St. Helens’ planning for transportation corridors and intersections, as well as municipal parks and trails.

“You have some really good plans out there,” West said. “They really do have some good recommendations in them. So don’t be afraid to integrate some of those recommendations with what you see here.”

Port Angeles was the subject of an SDAT study in 2009.

The SDAT process, for which cities across the United States can apply, involves a small group of experts from around the country being tapped by the American Institute of Architects to spend a few days in a community and provide an outside perspective on its infrastructure projects and urban design.

West said his city has been working to implement many SDAT recommendations, and he provided some advice on how St. Helens should proceed now that it has the team’s input.

“I’d like to challenge all of you to get extremely excited about what you’re capable of, what you can do as a community by coming together,” said West.

West said once the city’s purchase of the veneer property becomes final, it should immediately seek outside money to help finance projects like the construction of the boardwalk and pier SDAT proposes, as well as a program to allow businesses to replace unsightly building exteriors with public assistance. It should also establish a clear hierarchy to oversee the waterfront development project, he added.

SDAT developed its recommendations after hearing from the public at a series of meetings and workshops Monday.

The presentation at the Columbia Theatre will be posted to the American Institute of Architects website, Davis told the audience. The team will also provide the city with a detailed report, he said.

The SDAT recommendations are not binding. City officials have said that any decision on what to do with the veneer property will be made after a public process.

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