Excitement Muted for Phelps Pedestrian Mall

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – In any other year, the opening of the Phelps Street pedestrian mall would be a huge story.

But thanks to the pandemic, it’s just another place to practice social distancing.

The downtown Youngstown project is turning a block and a half of North Phelps Street into a landscaped plaza lined with bars and restaurants. It appears to be days away from completion, although city officials did not respond to requests for details.

All that remains of the $1.34 million project, which began in February, is lighting, signage and other touches.

Marrucci and Gaffney Excavating Co. is the contractor for the mall, which was originally scheduled for a July opening, and later moved back to September.

With colder weather upon us, and COVID-19 putting limits on social gatherings, the opening has become almost an afterthought.

Even among business owners on the block, there is little excitement. Most say the city has not told them when the mall will open, or the extent to which they can take advantage with patio seating.

And the sharp downturn in business resulting from the pandemic makes the mall a moot project for now.

The mall is paved in red and white concrete in a wavy pattern, with segments of paving bricks. Decorative bollards and an overhead sign will add to the charm of the walkway.

Bar owners expect it to become a focal point of the downtown’s lively nightlife scene once warm weather returns and the virus is under control.

One new nightspot, Gringos, opened in September on the mall and another, Tequila Coyote, will open in a few months. They join existing dining and drinking establishments V2, Suzie’s Dogs and Drafts and Rhine Haus. At the northern end of the mall sits One Hot Cookie. Eight other bars and restaurants lie within a half-block of the mall.

The Phelps Street walkway will some day complement the Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre, Powers Auditorium and Covelli Centre as downtown magnets.

But for now, bar owners and restaurateurs have other worries.

“We’ll expand our patio out as much [the city] will let us,” says Christian Rinehart, who owns Suzie’s and Rhine Haus. “But by the time [the mall] opens it won’t be helpful because it won’t be warm.”

Rinehart has kept his two bars closed during mall construction. He remains doubtful he will reopen them immediately after the mall opens.

“There is no point in reopening until we get to stay open later and until workers return to downtown,” he says.

Under the orders of Gov. Mike DeWine, bars must end alcohol sales at 10 p.m. and close at 11 p.m.

Also, most workers in downtown office buildings are still working from home, which has made for empty streets and sidewalks during the day and early evening.

Once the pandemic is over, the Phelps Street mall “will be the best location downtown,” Rinehart says. Regardless, he says, other issues remain that must be addressed.

“The biggest problem is parking,” he says. “If I have to pay to park, I’ll go to Boardman. And people will not walk far [from a distant parking lot]. There is no retail down here. But if we had parking, you’d get antique stores and maybe a bicycle shop. What university area doesn’t have a bicycle shop?”

Rinehart also says the pedestrian area will need to be monitored for safety.

“The police already walk a downtown beat. But they’ll need to have a presence here,” he says. Rinehart points out that he employs security guards for the inside of his two bars on Phelps Street.

The owners of Gringos didn’t bother to wait for the mall to be finished; they opened last month with patrons entering through the back door.

Like Suzie’s, Gringos has a garage door on its front wall that can be opened on warm days to create an open-air environment.

Co-owner Ken Vigorito says he is glad to be at the center of the mall.

He and his business partners began discussions about opening a restaurant downtown long before the idea of a pedestrian mall came up. But now that the mall is here, Vigorito says he can see its potential.

V2 Wine Bar and Trattoria has been a mainstay of downtown for years. The restaurant and bar on West Federal Street has a lot of frontage on the Phelps Street Mall and plans to take advantage of it.

Co-owner Ed Moses said V2 will add two large glass doors to the window wall that faces the mall. The garage-type doors would make for open-air dining and expand capacity.

Directly across the mall from V2 will be the new Tequila Coyote bar and restaurant.

Renovation work continues at Tequila Coyote and co-owner Herb Rabatin says the opening is about three months away.

Tequila Coyote will have a granite-top bar surrounded by tables. Two large accordion-style glass wall doors are being installed along the mall to open the room up for outdoor dining.

A short portion of the mall is on the other side of Commerce Street; it dead-ends alongside the Erie Terminal building.

A raised concrete platform has been built there for outdoor seating.

It’s directly opposite One Hot Cookie, where owner Bergen Giordani was frustrated by the length of the project because it kept her shop closed most of the year.

“It cut off access to our door until yesterday,” she said Oct. 14.

Work began on the mall in February and was supposed to take 120 days, Giordani said. Her cookie shop has been closed since March.

As for the platform built in front of her shop, Giordani sees it being used as a stage but said the city has not told her its plans for the space.

Also waiting for information is Ibrahim Jafar, who owns Eman’s Lebanese Cuisine in the food court of the 20 Federal Place building.

The back door of his restaurant opens onto the pedestrian mall and Jafar would like to take advantage by selling food on weekends and evenings.

At minimum, the city-owned building would have to install doors with an upper half that could be opened to make it a service window, Jafar says.

“Maybe we could put tables and chairs and umbrellas up,” he says.

Jafar says his sales have been down by more than 50% because of the pandemic but he’s optimistic that the mall will give them a boost.

“It’s going to be beautiful there in the summertime,” he says.

A Subway store and the Capitol Grill also have back doors that open on to the mall.

City Councilman Julius Oliver, whose district encompasses downtown, says he has been in favor of the idea for months.

“I had suggested turning 20 Federal Place inside out so that the lunch places can sell food on the plaza,” he said. “The issue is: Who is going to pay for [the necessary renovations]?”

Oliver says the city administration had not yet informed him as to when the pedestrian mall will open.

Pictured: Gringos Tacos opened last month, in advance of the completion of the Phelps Street mall in downtown Youngstown. Tequila Coyote will open in a few months.