20 Federal Re-Envisioning Aims for Best Use of Space

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Hachem Jaafar views the proposed redevelopment of 20 Federal Place as “a great opportunity” following what has been a difficult year. 

Jaafar, of Hermitage, owns the Capitol Grill in the city-owned building’s food court. In 2019, he took over the restaurant, which has operated there since 2007. 

Business was down 60% because of the coronavirus pandemic but is coming back slowly, he reported. One of the elements being considered in the proposed $34 million redevelopment is opening the Phelps Street side of the building, where the food court is located, to allow restaurants to provide service to the new Phelps Street Gateway. 

Capitol Grill now just serves lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

“If they open the back, we can serve every day and also on the weekend,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for us.”

Opening the food court restaurants was among the elements of the proposed renovation to 20 Federal Place outlined before the city’s design review committee, which met virtually Tuesday.    

Plans for the seven-story, 332,000-square-foot former department store building were prepared by St. Louis-based Steadfast City Economic & Community Partners. Steadfast worked with the city, local firms Strollo Architects and BSHM Architects inc. and Scarlet Oak Capital Impact in Columbus to develop the proposal.

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Steadfast drafted the redevelopment plan under contract with the Appalachian Regional Commission, which last year selected Youngstown as one of 16 technical assistance recipients through its Opportunity Appalachia initiative.

Opportunity Appalachia was developed by the ARC to provide technical assistance to Appalachian communities that are designated a federal Opportunity Zone and are seeking to attract investment to specific projects within their zone. The goal of the technical assistance grant was to prepare a market-driven redevelopment strategy for the property. 

The city provided $5,000 in in-kind services to match services worth up to $40,000 provided by Steadfast, said Hunter Morrison, an urban planning consultant working for the city. 

“We’ve always been aware of the cost to the city of having a building that is not fully occupied,” Morrison said. “Just from a property management perspective we’ve got to do something with the building. We thought the best way was to step back and look holistically to see if we could put together a prospectus that would interest developers in this particular project.” 

The building is at 60% occupancy, with some tenants leaving and others downsizing, he said. 

The major tenant at 20 Federal is VXI Global Solutions Inc., which has operated a call center there since 2009. VXI leases two full floors and part of an additional floor, and has a recruitment center on the ground floor. The company still maintains its space, but now many of its employees work remotely because of the pandemic, Morrison said.    

City officials and VXI representatives did not respond to requests for information regarding VXI’s lease or whether there were discussions with the company regarding its plans should the city move forward with the project.  

Other building tenants include Ruddy Insurance, Mahoning and Columbiana Training Association, Mahoning County Land Bank, CT Consultants, the city’s building and grounds department and human relations commission, and a local office of the Ohio Attorney General. 

Built in 1926, the Strouss-Hirschberg Co. operated a landmark department store there that closed in 1986. The following year, it was redeveloped to serve as the headquarters for the former Phar-Mor Inc. deep discount drug and retail chain. The city eventually acquired it in 2005.    

Downtown Youngstown has “a fabulously historic base” and “a great sense of place,” Doug Rasmussen, Steadfast City president and CEO, said during the presentation. “The entrepreneurial energy is off the charts,” he added. 

“No other building in Youngstown has that historical connection like this building. This department store used to be a big focal point for the community and we want to make it that again,” added Allison Gray, Steadfast City vice president.  

Gray outlined a vision for the building that included expanding access to the food court vendors from Phelps Street, a visitors bureau and a souvenir shop featuring 3D-printed items on the ground floor, offices and co-working space on the mezzanine level, office space on the second and third floors, and a mix of office and residential space on floors four through seven that would accommodate the growing “hybrid life-work model,” she said.

The plan envisions a sunken plaza that leads into the building’s basement, which could have several different uses, including a shop to sell the famous Strouss malts. 

“We want to really use that space,” she said. Creating the sunken plaza there and opening the food court restaurants’ access to Phelps also would create new access ports that will bring a lot of people into the building. 

“One of the things we did in this analysis was really look at the highest and best use of each floor,” Morrison said. 

The plan envisions a sunken plaza that leads into the basement.

The proposal envisions a financial stack that includes federal Opportunity Zone funds, new market tax credits, federal and state historic tax credits, and Property Assessed Clean Energy Program financing. A request for proposals is expected to go out in April with a developer to be selected in October, Rasmussen said. 

Downtown stakeholders contacted after the meeting were enthusiastic about the proposal. 

Among them is Anthony Trevena, chief operating officer for the Western Reserve Port Authority, who has worked with the partners to develop the capital stack for the project. 

“It’s an incredibly exciting project,” he said. “This building was the epicenter of commerce.”

Trevena pointed out that many landmark buildings haven’t survived the test of time, and similar concepts have been executed successfully in communities such as Cleveland and Pittsburgh. People want to live in a walkable community with market-rate housing and there is a proven demand for it in downtown Youngstown, he said.

20 Federal Place is an asset that “hasn’t been utilized to its full benefit of the community,” observed Sharon Letson, executive director of Youngstown CityScape. Ideas like its potential redevelopment are important to “continuing the vibrant downtown” that other projects in the community started, she said. 

Suzanne Barbati, president and executive director of Oh Wow! The Roger & Gloria Jones Children’s Center for Science & Technology, also supports the project. The science center itself is undergoing a renovation ahead of a planned May reopening. 

When there isn’t a pandemic, Oh Wow staff has encouraged visitors to explore downtown, Barbati said.  

“There’s a number of attractions within walking distance.” A $34 million investment in 20 Federal “can only be good for us and good for the entire community,” she said. 

Pictured at top: Capitol Grill owner Hachem Jaafar, and employee Christina Mechling.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.