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New guidelines aim to improve look and layout of Worthington businesses — specifically on Oxford Street

WORTHINGTON — Oxford Street is the first and, for some, the only street visitors see when they drive through Worthington.

The problem, in the eyes of many business and city leaders, is that the street, simply put, is ugly. It’s poorly laid out, lacking connectivity and missing distinctive characteristics.

In the words of one person surveyed about the street last year, it “looks like the town is closing shop.”

The Worthington Planning Commission is aiming to change that by creating guidelines that mandate the look, design and position of businesses in the city — universal standards that exist in most cities but have long been missing in Worthington.

Design Worthington, with the help of Minneapolis design firm Cuningham Group, has created preliminary guidelines based on input from the community. Over the next few months, the commission will work on finalizing a plan to potentially enforce specific design standards for new businesses.

The team, with assistance from the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, surveyed Worthington residents at various events over the last year, including the Windsurfing Regatta, International Festival, Nobles County Fair and King Turkey Day.

Fifty-nine percent of participants agreed that Oxford Street is unsafe, unattractive and uninviting. Conversely, 76 percent said downtown Worthington feels planned and is pedestrian friendly.

Above are the survey results from Design Worthington. (Special to The Globe)

Oxford Street is the focus of the guidelines, not only because many agree it needs a facelift, but because it has room to grow. Oxford Street is the commercial future of Worthington — it is where business growth will primarily occur as the city expands.

Andrew Dresdner, senior associate in urban design with Cuningham Group, gave a presentation on the initial guidelines Wednesday.

Dresdner said that before World War II, when Worthington consisted only of its downtown area, city leaders did a good job of planning out the city to fit on a human scale. Starting in the 1960s, when businesses began to move onto Oxford Street, the city had more of an “anything goes” attitude when it came to the design and layout of new businesses.

Much of Dresdner’s focus is on guiding business owners as to how they can improve the look and build quality of their buildings, as well as redesigning Oxford Street to be more compact, efficient and well-connected.

Dresdner named Sterling Drug and the Worthington Fire Hall as examples of attractive, functional designs that exist already in town.

He said Sterling Drug, by having the building located close to the sidewalk and surrounding by its entrance with tables and trees, had deliberately created a welcoming, customer-friendly public space. Parking is divided into three small lots on each side of the building, keeping it compact and usable.

“It’s just a nice little design on many, many levels,” Dresdner said. “If every development was like this, it'd be wonderful.”

Pictured is Sterling Drug. (Karl Evers-Hillstrom / The Globe)

City staff and members of the planning commission believe that new businesses were simply never told that green space, landscaping, compact parking lots and interesting, high quality building designs were a priority.

“I think a lot of the stuff you see on Oxford and around town that you’re not pleased or impressed by, it’s not that businesses were intentionally cutting costs, I think that they didn’t have any guidance or any help trying to do something creative,” said Jason Brisson, Worthington community and economic development director.

Commissioner Amy Woitalewicz cited Walmart as a specific example. Though the city had minimum parking requirements at the time of its development, it hadn’t set maximums, nor had it asked Walmart to do any kind of landscaping to make its property look nice.

“Walmart has so much extra parking,” Woitalewicz said. “If our city set a maximum number on the size, there would be more green space and other things there, and it would be much more pleasing.”

Based on conversations with business owners, commission members argue better building designs typically don’t add much cost to a project.

Brisson said a guide would help business owners defray the cost of good site and building design.

Julie Versteeg of Fullerton Building Systems said she liked the plan, adding that — based on her experience — national developers expect that a city will have requirements for design and materials of buildings.

“Say if a prototype building is 90 percent EIFS (a composite building material), but the city wants coated stone or brick, they have the responsibility to adhere to those guidelines, and that’s something that we as a company deal with every day because we’re building buildings around the country,” Versteeg said.

Another important aspect of good design is the positioning of buildings, Dresdner said. Oxford Street businesses are generally spread out, with empty, undeveloped space sitting in between them. Dresdner said that connecting businesses and moving them closer to the street creates a more pedestrian-friendly and welcoming environment.

Commissioners said they worked with Papa Murphy’s to encourage a high-quality, interesting building design and were happy with the result, but noted they did not have any formal authority to enforce their suggestions. The planning commission only goes by the city’s rules, ordinances and master plan — none of which deal with design guidelines.

“Right now, as long as they’re not too close to the street, as long as there’s not anything inherently dangerous about it, we have to approve it,” Brisson said.

Cuningham will use any additional feedback it has received from local business owners to craft its final design guidelines in a document that is meant to be readable and easy to understand.

In addition to the guidelines, Cuningham will provide the commission with a memo that details specific building and planning guidelines the commission could choose to enforce via new ordinances or an updated comprehensive plan.

Specific guidelines as to where a building should be placed and its materials would apply to new buildings or renovations. It hasn’t been made clear how potential requirements would affect existing businesses, through Brisson acknowledged the city would not force existing businesses to make major changes.

The planning commission will come up with the plan over the next month or two, but any new ordinances or rules will ultimately be approved or shot down by the Worthington City Council.

Cuningham Group’s guidelines and Design Worthington’s survey results will be available on the city of Worthington website in the near future.

Ryan McGaughey

I first joined the Daily Globe in April 2001 as sports editor. I later became the news editor in November 2002, and the managing editor in August 2006. I'm originally from New York State, and am married with two children.

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