Preserving Old Towne

Cultural characteristics of the historic Old Towne area of St. Helens, Ore. will perhaps be better conserved due to the work of several Portland State graduate students.

Cultural characteristics of the historic Old Towne area of St. Helens, Ore. will perhaps be better conserved due to the work of several Portland State graduate students. 

The city’s vision for the Old Towne area is somewhat vague and ambiguous, according to Jacob Graichen, city planner for St. Helens. 

“There’s no clear standard for what the city’s vision is,” Graichen said. 

Graichen explained that the area was re-zoned in 2007 to allow for some architectural review. The PSU students that make up the team known as Formworks Planning Group are hoping to do just that. 

“Ultimately what this is…is an improvement on how the current zoning laws are written,” Graichen said. 

Formworks aims to work with the businesses and citizens of St. Helens to discover and understand the most valued aspects of Old Towne and re-apply such aspects in new development and renovations in an effort to best benefit the community, according to Caitlin Francis, project manager for Formworks. 

“We’re working with the community as closely as possible,” Francis said. 

Graichen agreed, adding that a major aspect of the project is “citizen input.”

Graichen approached the students in Formworks through a workshop class in PSU’s School of Urban Studies and Planning, according

to Francis. 

The Planning Workshop is a nine-credit course with projects lasting 20 weeks that affords graduate students an opportunity to have an applied experience in the field of urban planning. 

“We want them to have hands-on [application] before they leave,” Emily Bassett, associate professor of urban studies and planning, said.

Bassett is confident about the program due in part to several successful student-run projects in the past—streets in the Woodstock area of Portland benefitted from a similar project last year.  Additionally, she is encouraged by the unique nature of PSU’s approach. 

While the selection process can vary, Bassett explained that what makes PSU’s program distinct is “[letting] the students [select] their own projects.” 

There are currently eight student projects through the workshop this year. Notable projects include a plan to implement better thoroughfares for bicycles in the city of Redmond and a downtown revitalization project similar to St. Helens’ in the eastern Oregon city of Weston. 

In St. Helens, Formworks’ belief in the importance of design continuity follows the success stories of many historic areas such as Old Towne. These areas have often benefitted from the preservation of architecturally relevant buildings and landmarks not only because of increased tourism, but similarly by creating self-sufficient communities that better support local residents, according to the Formworks’ website. 

Graichen believes that the Formworks input will lead to “an actual set of design standards that guides the appearance [of Old Towne].” 

Francis explained that the design guidelines, however, are not meant to be so specific as size and location of windows, for example. 

“We don’t want it to be a really rigorous regulation,” Francis said. “We want to allow enough flexibility that [the regulations] aren’t too restricting.” 

The members of Formworks are 10 weeks into the 20-week project. They have already interviewed and surveyed a number of businesses and community members and are now preparing for two open house community workshops to gather additional ideas about the identity of Old Towne. 

“[We are] hoping to hear what the community of St. Helens values within the Old Towne are,” Sadie Carney, Formworks client and outreach lead, said in a press release. “Community input and participation is what will make this possible.”

Though one open house community workshop was held yesterday, the next will  occur tomorrow from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at Plantan House Pizza. ?