Main Street – Owatonna

A Wells Fargo Bank in Owatonna, designed by Louis Sullivan

A Wells Fargo Bank in Owatonna, designed by Louis Sullivan

Caveat: This is at best drive-by urbanism, I didn’t do any investigative reporting besides citing Wikipedia and visiting and photographing. I don’t really know what makes Owatonna tick, but even at a short glance, some issues can be identified.

Owatonna is [the county seat of] Steele County, Minnesota, United States. The population was 25,599 at the 2010 census.

Downtown Owatonna [photos] appears economically the most successful of the four (Faribault, Owatonna, Albert Lea, and Austin) southern Minnesota main streets visited. The Main Street is mostly rented out. There were more people on the street.

The anchor of Owatonna is the Wells Fargo Bank, which is a great piece of architecture originally designed by Louis Sullivan as the National Farmer’s Bank. The main square hosts Farmer’s Markets and attracts people to the center of town. Away from the heart of town, the land use and architecture gets a bit lower rent (as one might imagine).

Some buildings in Owatonna that have had less successful architectural restoration.

Some buildings in Owatonna that have had less successful architectural restoration.

I have a Theory of Constraints, that places with physical constraints (an island or peninsula) are more economically successful because the constraints force higher densities, and those higher densities create economies of agglomeration. The examples are San Francisco, or Manhattan, or Venice, and so on. People of course have less space at home (since real estate is pricier), but as a result, they are out and about more often, interacting and trading and creating.

One might expect binding man-made constraints to have the same effect. So if there were truly effective zoning or greenbelts or urban growth boundaries that forced concentration, there would be less developable spaces outside of downtown, driving more to the center, and making those places vibrant. The risk of course is that it might drive development away from the city altogether, to some other place.

At any rate, Owatonna is rapidly growing, and has a lot going on, and has done a better than average job of driving, luring, keeping economic activity, especially retail, toward the center of town, but still the core is only a few blocks long before demand peters out. It is a town and not a city, but even as a town it sprawls a bit more than it should.

7 thoughts on “Main Street – Owatonna

  1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Owatonna has done a remarkably effective job of maintaining the character of their downtown, despite having the primary commercial blocks spread across three primary streets (Main St, Broadway St, and Cedar Ave). Nearly all downtown blocks on these streets have consistent setbacks, and there are no parking lots facing these streets to act as missing teeth.

    It’s a downtown I cherish quite a bit since I spend a fair amount of time there, and I think the existing built environment has a huge amount of potential as people return to investing in the downtown. Good bones, ripe for investment.

    Other cities such as Faribault and Red Wing have more classic Italianate architecture which has been restored over the past two or three decades with the first wave of downtown appreciation. Many of Owatonna’s downtown buildings are much more utilitarian in aesthetic and many date to the mid-century. There’s also charm in that.

  2. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

    Owatonna and Steele County have been imagining a beltline loop around the city for a while now to help folks circulate around town without having to go through downtown. Surprisingly, I-35 and US-14 are not considered part of this beltline.

    This study from 2004 is relevant: LINK There are previous studies out there as well.

    More recently (2011), this study of beltline options was prepared by a respectable Twin Cities consulting firm (of which I was an employee at the time): LINK

    It says the following about downtown:
    The need for transportation improvements is based on the continued growth and development of Owatonna as well as impending roadway changes in the area. Currently, it is often necessary to take a circuitous route to get from one side of Owatonna to another due to a lack of continuous routes. As a result, many trips must travel through downtown even though their origins and destinations are outside of downtown. During peak travel periods, this can lead to significant congestion in the downtown area.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Well, I hope they spend just as much money traffic calming downtown. Unfortunately Oak Ave (N/S) and Bridge/Main St (E/W) were four-laned before 35 and 14 freeways existed. Now the streets are a barrier to quality development of the downtown area.

      I’ve been in downtown Owatonna multiple times during rush hour, and our observation was that the roads were vastly overbuilt. There was no traffic. And the overbuilt streets meant no tree canopy, no boulevard/buffer between pedestrians on a narrow sidewalk and excessively fast vehicular traffic in the street.

      It would be better if the planners just came out and said why they really want a “car sewer beltway” — to induce more “growth.”

  3. Steve Harper

    One thing that may help Owatonna is that it has two fairly major employers, Jostens and Federated Insurance, with downtown facilities. Since people are already downtown the stores are convenient during lunch and right after work.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Indeed. Unfortunately Federated has moved a large portion of its Owatonna workforce to a suburbanesque office building with nary a sidewalk connecting to the street grid.

      If I were in Owatonna, I’d want to work at the downtown location, no doubt!

  4. Marcus

    Wierd… I grew up in Owatonna and graduated h.s. there. It’s wierd to have your hometown discussed on website you frequent.

  5. aisha

    now that you just said that.
    can you please tell me the best and safest part to rent in owatonna ?
    please i have two young children and renting to settle down its imperative that i find a safe habour for them, if you know what i mean. dont know anywhere there but have heard enough to want to settle.
    your honesty would be much appreciated.

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