Downtown Construction: It’s Complicated and It’s a Mess

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – In downtown Youngstown, some restaurant and bar operators say their establishments now need a month to earn what they used to make in a weekend.

The patrons they still have complain about trouble navigating streets and accessing parking because of the multimillion-dollar road construction project underway. Streets appear to be shut down before others are reopened, they say, and installation of decorative crosswalks at intersections is further impeding access.

Then there is the news that a two-block stretch of the project will need to be rebid because of unforeseen consequences related to the presence of underground vaults on Federal Street between Phelps and Champion streets. That will further delay completion of the work beyond the scope of the three-year contract awarded to Marucci & Gaffney Excavating Co in 2021.

Frustration resulting from the inconveniences of the ongoing construction is compounded by lack of communication, downtown power outages – both scheduled (and occasionally delayed or canceled) and unplanned – and complications arising from the environmental remediation and partial demolition of the 20 Federal Place building. 

It’s a mess.

In January 2021, the city’s board of control approved a $15.8 million design-build contract with Marucci & Gaffney of Youngstown for the second phase of the Smart2 – for Strategic & Sustainable, Medical & Manufacturing, Academic & Arts, Residential & Recreational, Technology & Training – Network project.

Included in this phase, which has a mid-March deadline, are reconstruction of these street segments:

• Front Street from Vindicator Square to South Avenue.

• Federal Street from Fifth Avenue to South Avenue.

• Commerce Street from Fifth Avenue to Federal Street.

• Rayen Avenue from Fifth Avenue to Walnut Street.

• Phelps Street from Emily Alley to Federal Street.

• Fifth Avenue – which underwent a major renovation under Smart2’s initial phase – from the Westbound Service Road to Park Avenue.

• Park Avenue from Covington Street to Fifth Avenue.

Work was to begin Aug. 16 on the section of West Federal Street between Phelps and Hazel streets, even as work continues on West Federal from Hazel to Symphony Place. Work on both sections is expected to be complete by the end of construction season this year, approximately November, according to Charles Shasho, deputy director of public works for the city.

Impact on Business

The block-length section about to get under construction is the location for several downtown establishments, including V2 Wine Bar and Trattoria, The Federal, Whistle & Keg, Prima Cucina Italiana, The Federal, Imbibe Martini Bar and Ryes Craft Beer & Whiskey.

Jeff Kurz, co-owner of Imbibe and Ryes, has no doubt the kind of infrastructure update that downtown is undergoing is sorely needed, but he can’t ignore the impact it is having on businesses here.

“The issue that we have as businesses is that it not only cuts off the flow of traffic to Federal Street where most of the businesses are located, but it also cuts off the flow of traffic to Commerce Street where the parking is located,” he says.

East Federal Street between Champion and Walnut street now has an island for trees and shrubs.

An attorney whose office is downtown, Kurz is seeing fewer patrons at both of his establishments, as well as those operated by other business owners. Some are seeing revenue losses significant enough that they now do in a month what they previously did in a weekend.

“We contact patrons, and we ask patrons questions. We do marketing research to find out what the issues are,” Kurz says. “We’re finding almost unanimously that it’s the construction and lack of parking.”

Once customers change their habits by going to other places, especially in the suburbs, they either are “lost permanently” or are very difficult to get “back into a routine with us,” even after the work is finished, he says.

Dan Martini, one of the owners of The Federal, 101 W. Federal St., is banking on the street being reopened by the holidays. He projects 40% to 50% of his revenue coming from the period November through January. He reports business this summer is down about 30%. And he is concerned about what will happen when his stretch of West Federal is closed off for construction.

“We’ve operated pretty well through this construction,” Martini says. Food delivery services have been a “saving grace” for business but the construction will make it more difficult for drivers to pick up orders.

“Communication [with City Hall officials] would go a long way,” Martini says. We’ve been told a lot of different things a lot of different times.” 

Among the most vocal critics of how the city and its contractors have managed the project is Mark Canzonetta, who opened Bistro 1907 in the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in 2018. During a recent concert weekend in July, people wanting to come to his restaurant had difficulty finding access to parking because of road closings, he complains.

Friday night business is off 50% and Saturday night is off about 35%, he reports. Further, food servers on weekends see only about half the  tips they would normally earn. The drop in business makes keeping servers more difficult.

“That’s big when your Friday night becomes a regular weekday in sales,” Canzonetta laments.” I can’t survive on downtown. I need the people from the suburbs.”

The construction has raised uncertainty for businessman Tim Huber, co-owner of Prima Cucina and a partner in Premier Restaurant Group. A planned restaurant in the Erie Terminal Place spot formerly occupied by The Kitchen Post restaurant is on hold until West Commerce Street is finished, a process complicated by the remediation and demolition work taking place at 20 Federal Pace.

Still to be determined is whether Prima will relocate as the West Federal work continues, although he anticipates a decision soon.

“It’s really in the city’s hands,” Huber says. “Can they do the repairs and things that they need to do, the whole remake, in a short amount of time? I just don’t know. I really wish I had a better answer to it.”

Canzonetta says he needs the construction work to be completed quickly.

“I love being here,” he says. “It’s just, how do we get the city to support us? How do we get the city to [light] a fire underneath the contractors to alleviate some of the strain on our businesses? Why don’t we finish one road before we start another? That’s my biggest question. Why don’t we do one road at a time?”

‘Fairly Smoothly’

Shasho hears the complaints but emphasizes that Marucci & Gaffney is on schedule. The company provides an updated schedule every month.

“And we make sure that they’re on track. We have a consultant that we use just to review their schedule,” he says. “And they are. As much as people may not think they are, they are on schedule.”

Project coordination has gotten “significantly better” than it was early on. He acknowledges the project has gone through “growing pains” and the work has not proceeded without issues.

“All in all, I think things have gone fairly smoothly,” Shasho remarks, quickly adding that “people would disagree with me, I guess, here and there.”

Under the terms of the contract, Marucci & Gaffney isn’t required to finish one road before starting another one, a process that he says would not only have been more expensive but would have taken more time as well – likely beyond the time the city has to spend the money under the federal grant guidelines.

Under the terms of the $10.8 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant the city was awarded in 2018, the approximately $25 million project must be completed by the end of 2025. In addition to the road construction work, which includes road diets, adding bike lanes and installing crosswalks and medians to make the streets more pedestrian friendly, the project also includes implementation of an autonomous shuttle.

The biggest part of the project that Shasho says he did not anticipate was difficulties created by the crosswalks – 62 in all – that are being installed as part of the road work. Each takes about a week and a half to install, and they can’t support traffic for an additional two weeks, Shasho says.

And it isn’t as simple as just setting a single crew to construct each intersection.

An excavation crew digs out multiple sites and underground crews install conduits, catch basins and drains. Carpenters make the formwork before ironworkers install reinforcement. Concrete finishers or laborers then pour first the regular concrete for the header and, after it sets, the colored and textured concrete that is eventually stamped “so that it looks like a crosswalk.”

The most recent complication to hit the project is the need to deduct the section of East and West Federal streets between Champion and Phelps streets from Marucci & Gaffney’s current contract and rebid that portion of the work separately. The geometry of the new road will interfere with the existing underground vaults. “They’re not our basements. They’re in our right-of-way,” he says.

“It’s not uncommon in older cities to have that happen,” Jim Kinnick, executive director of Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, says. Eastgate was the lead applicant for the $10.85 million grant that the city and its partners received.

Because the basements are attached to privately owned buildings, the city and its contractors will need cooperation from the property owners involved, Shasho says. A meeting was to take place Aug. 14.

“We’re going to partner with them significantly. We’re going to introduce this and try to get some coordination,” he says. The objective will be to rebid the Federal Street work before the next construction season.

While most of the Commerce Street work is completed, the section between Wick Avenue and North Phelps is on hold because of 20 Federal Place’s ongoing remediation project and the upcoming demolition of a portion of the building, which should start in a month.

Marucci & Gaffney would complete the remaining East Commerce work – including curbing, sidewalks, lighting and final paving – “real close” to the mid-March deadline, Shasho says.

The final component of Smart2 is procurement and implementation of an autonomous shuttle system to serve downtown. “We’re trying to assist the city any way we can to get a consultant on board,” Kinnick says.

Help Wanted

Downtown business owners generally are supportive of Smart2’s goals and what completion of the project will mean for downtown, even as they voice their frustrations and lament the disruptions the construction has caused their enterprises. But they want help in the meantime.

Kurz says he has requested a meeting with city officials to see about providing some sort of financial assistance to help subsidize businesses affected by the construction, as well as with Valley Partners, which works with the U.S. Small Business Administration. He also says he is willing to do legal work pro bono to assist the businesses with applications for grants and loans.  

West Federal Street road construction will soon extend to the block that has several bars and restaurants.

“We are internally discussing what a downtown business incentive would consist of,” says Nikki Posterli, chief of staff to Mayor Jamael Tito Brown and director of the city’s department of community planning and economic development.

During an Aug. 9 virtual meeting with downtown stakeholders in advance of the upcoming West Federal work, suggested ideas included a collaboration with the city to market downtown businesses and remind the public they are still open, and wayfinding signage to direct visitors to available parking.  

“We definitely need improved signage,” Shasho affirmed during the virtual meeting. He also acknowledges the “communications package” needs improvement.

“The Kid Rock concert proves that people absolutely will come downtown, if they want to,” 1st Ward Councilman Julius Oliver said during the meeting. “If we were to get a marketing program or something launched sooner than later, I think it would help a lot.”

Kurz is encouraged by talk of a marketing plan.

“We need assistance keeping people here who are coming downtown for events,” he says.

Once shows at Covelli Centre and Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre are over, people head to their cars, get on Front Street and are directed toward the Market Street or South Avenue bridges and head away from downtown. Allowing those people to remain parked where they are and transporting them to downtown businesses using Western Reserve Transit Authority or a downtown trolley, and advertising the downtown businesses at the venues and providing wayfinding signage, would help, Kurz says.

“We’d like to work with them and work with the administration,” he says. “It is counterproductive to demonize the city, especially when we need their assistance and their help getting us out of this period that we’re in.”

Pictured at top: Jeff Kurz stands on the sidewalk patio of Imbibe and Ryes, the two downtown bars that he co-owns.