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One of the reasons downtown Princeton has survived relatively intact is because a significant number of its buildings were made of resilient brick.

However, over the years, a number of buildings have been destroyed by fires, razed or altered from their initial designs.

Some downtown buildings have been covered with other materials to modernize their appearance or limit the necessity for maintenance.

City staff has been working with the Princeton Planning Commission and Economic Development Authority to set up initiatives to assist property owners who want to reinvest in these store fronts.

Last week, Princeton Planning Commission members received their first look at a recently developed set of downtown design guidelines and seven façade case studies prepared by Minneapolis-based MacDonald & Mack Architects.

Firm principal Robert Mack presented a summary of an 80-page document prepared for the city during the meeting.

Seven Properties

The guidelines presented by Mack include potential improvement studies for seven downtown Princeton buildings:

•201-203 Rum River Drive N. (Rocks and Things);

• 135 Rum River Drive N. (Former NAPA store);

• 111 Rum River Drive N. (Jodie’s Antiques and Treasures);

• 510 First St. (Part of White Birch Dental);

• 513 First St. (The Insurance Shoppe);

• 121-123 Rum River Drive S. (Former Movie Theater)

• 129 Rum River Drive S. (Federated Co-Ops, Inc.)

Planning commission members will spend the next month reviewing the proposed guidelines, providing input and suggesting changes before forwarding an implementation recommendation to the Princeton City Council.

Community Development Specialist Stephanie Hillesheim introduced Mack. “We’ve just been waiting for our next steps,” she said, adding the city had been waiting for the seven building façade case study “before and afters” to see what changes could be made. Funding would be provided through grants.

“These are not ordinance changes,” City Administrator Robert Barbian explained. “We are providing an incentive for these property owners to go down a certain road.”

Program Objectives

According to a city background sheet, the objective of the downtown façade grant program is to provide financial assistance for property owners or tenants who wants to improve or restore properties.

The grant program is intended to stimulate architecturally appropriate building improvements mindful of the historical significance and uniqueness of the downtown.

Barbian further explained the planning commission would make the final decision on whether or not an applicant would meet the test to get a grant.

“This [80-page] document is something that the planning commission will have to consider for adoption. It doesn’t have to be at this meeting,” he said.

Mack said the staff at his firm enjoyed working on the property-specific case studies and proposed guidelines. His goal during the June 17 meeting was to briefly explain the guidelines and answer commissioners’ immediate questions.

“You’ll have an opportunity between now and your next meeting to dive more deeply into this document,” Mack said.

Distinct Downtown

According to Mack, the design guidelines are intended to provide a road map for stewardship of the currently built environment in ways that make the downtown a distinctive, vibrant commercial and social heart of the city.

Rehabilitation of existing buildings can be a catalyst for economic development and increase local property values, he explained.

Mack told commissioners the guidelines are not rigid rules but recommendations local building owners can use for exterior improvements. “These are guidelines as opposed to standards,” Mack added. “The goal is getting more people downtown, and getting them to stay longer while they are there.”

The 80-page document presented to the Princeton Planning Commission contained several areas of recommendation.

Collaboration and cooperation between various city entitles was one area, Mack said, and using a building’s tax benefits was another. If a structure is designated as such, it’s possible to get a 40 percent tax credit if state and federal guidelines are observed.

“And, if a building isn’t historic, there are still economic benefits to improving it,” Mack said.

Pedestrians Are Key

Enhancing the pedestrian experience in downtown Princeton is another goal of the design guidelines.

According to Mack, the pedestrian experience on the west side of Rum River Drive is pleasant, but it could be improved through better streetscapes, signage, and relatively minor changes to buildings.

For example, returning a building’s windows to their original appearance can enhance overall aesthetics. Mack suggested such improvements for the Federated Co-Ops, Inc. building at 129 Rum River Drive S.

“We have no idea why building owners did certain things in the past,” Mack said, as he showed a poster-sized photo of the existing building. “Reopening the windows and removing the concrete block would make it more attractive.”

Overall, in looking at the “before and afters” that were created for the seven downtown buildings, Mack said his staff tried to create a range of opportunities.

“We asked what was the minimal, as well as the more aggressive,” he said.

Building Elements

Regarding steel siding, there are a number of downtown buildings that have been covered with steel siding for one reason or another. For those buildings, removing certain elements can help develop conformity, Mack said.

There’s a lot of ornamentation in downtown Princeton buildings. Mack recommended respecting those items. “There’s nothing in the guidelines that states you must or have to do something. Again, these are considerations.”

Buildings with commercial storefronts and enclosed large windows and recessed doors with small steps. That creates problems with building access, especially for people with mobility problems.

Mack suggested property owners work with city building officials to develop gentle access slopes as well as consider installing automatic door openers.

“There are also ways to make these buildings more energy-efficient at a relatively low cost,” Mack said, suggesting installing summer awnings to reduce heat and interior storm windows to reduce heat loss in the winter.

Barbian said the city has a façade grant program, as well as another loan program that can be used to fund a new roof, a furnace, or windows.

“There is funding for some of those items, in the form of a low-interest, matching loan,” he added.

Meeting Discussion

Princeton Economic Development Authority Chair Thom Walker was present at the June 17 meeting. He asked about the process of expanding the downtown guidelines if the program involving seven buildings ended up being successful.

“What’s the process if an eighth, ninth, or even 10th owner wants to get involved?” Walker asked. “What would have to have to happen to make it work?

Barbian said it might be possible for a property owner draw up their own preliminary concept and bring it to the city. Others might need an architect.

“We haven’t really got to the point of what happens if somebody wants to hire an architect and further explore some of the ideas that Bob [Mack] has come up with,” Barbian said. “Some communities have advanced 50 percent of the cost of what’s actually implemented. Architecture could be included as an eligible item.”

Jerome Mueller owns the former NAPA Auto Store at 135 Rum River Drive N., which features sheet metal cladding above its aluminum storefront.

The one-story building owned by Mueller was the former home of Princeton Hardware/Evens Hardware.

During discussion, Mueller was highly critical of the design guidelines that had been presented, as well as the role of the planning commission in the process.

“Shouldn’t a planning commission find out what someone is willing to invest in a building or already has invested, and help them achieve what they want?” Mueller asked. “Look at Crystal Cabinets. They really didn’t go along with what you are suggesting, and that building looks fabulous. We aren’t living in 1895. To try and make the downtown look like that, [well], we aren’t Stillwater.”

Mack said Mueller’s point had been giving consideration during his firm’s development of the downtown design guidelines.

Mueller contended the city would need property owners’ approval and assistance to get grants to pay for improvements.

“Property owners should be the ones you are trying to help,” Mueller said. “If you start taking metal off and tuck pointing brick, it costs a lot of money. My building has a lot of old bricks. You aren’t going to restore them to any decent condition. Cover it up and make it look modern. Try and make it look presentable.”

Mueller said his building would make a good parking lot. Barbian replied, “We are just trying to provide some direction. These are just guidelines. That’s all.”

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