Wanted: New Uses for Bank Towers

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – To get where they’re going, visitors to the Chase Tower in downtown Warren usually catch a ride from Ron Paulic and Otis.

Otis is one of two manually operated elevators in the building at 106 E. Market St. in Warren, which Paulic has operated for the last 20 years. A beep inside the elevator car indicates a rider needs a lift. A lever on the wall sets the car in motion. And Paulic opens the 500-pound door by hand to let the rider in.

On a given day, the soft-spoken 81-year-old estimates he gives rides to some 30 people – a far cry from the heyday of the building when it bustled with bank customers and professional offices in its upper floors.

Visitors not used to seeing manual elevators are charmed by the touch of nostalgia, Paulic says. “Wow! What the heck is this?” is typically their response, he says.

Ron Paulic and Otis

For an elevator that’s been around nearly a century, it’s a smooth ride.

From its ornate brass facade on the ground floor to its simple, mechanical operation, it’s also a perfect reflection of the classic architecture baked into the Valley’s bank towers built in the early 20th century, bearing the mark of such names as Scheibel, Kahn, Walker, Weeks and Owsley.

With its brass finishings, revolving door entrance and titanium doors to both vaults, Chase Tower – originally built in 1927 for the Union Savings & Trust Co. – “would have been a sight to see when the city was really booming,” says the co-owner of the building, Bill Axiotis.

Since the early 1900s and 1920s, bank towers in downtown Youngstown and Warren have stood as sentinels over the economic and residential expansion of the cities and surrounding areas.

Today, the grand buildings that once housed floors of offices in the downtown business districts work hard to maintain occupancy, forcing landlords to get creative with repurposing the space.

Co-owners Axiotis and Nick Liakaris, the owners of the Mocha House who bought the Warren building in 2013, have converted Chase Tower’s bank floor to event space. They offer access to the tower and their Hippodrome property for weddings. And they have an agreement with the Best Western Park Hotel, which “forms a triangle. It’s all downtown within walking distance,” Axiotis says.

The owners of Chase Tower in Warren have repurposed much of the building, including converting the main bank floor to an event space. 

Not having a bank as a tenant is discouraging, he says, but the package creates an anchor for the tower that’s drawn customers from outside of the area. Ceremonies are booked for three consecutive weekends from the end of September to the first few weeks in October.

“It was moving in a really good spot as far as the weddings and other events. Then everything got put on hold. But we’re still doing them,” Axiotis says. “I believe we’re going to be very successful with it.”

Regarding offices, the building is ideal for businesses looking for 500 square feet or less, he says. Occupancy is 35% to 40% with tenants on the first eight of the 10 floors of the building. The owners are looking for an anchor tenant to take an entire floor.

At the nearby Huntington Bank Building, having an active bank anchor has kept things “business as usual,” says Steve Lewis, president of Midwest Ventures & Consulting. Midwest Ventures owns the building at 108 Main Ave. SW, which enjoys 70% occupancy in the tower portion that was built in the early 1900s and 40% occupancy in the rear addition that was built in the early 1970s.

Since March, the building has neither gained nor lost tenants, Lewis says. Recently, however, he’s had interest from some companies that seek office space, including one entity looking for an entire floor.

New restaurants and bars, coupled with the revitalized entertainment district driven by the Warren Community Amphitheatre and reopened Robins Theatre, have attracted tenants who “10 years ago, wouldn’t even consider coming downtown,” says Lewis. He credits investors like Mark Marvin who have driven that development.

While proximity to the Trumbull County Courthouse and other administrative offices is attractive to the attorneys who have offices in the building, Lewis says the view of downtown is a big reason to set up in the tower.

“People come up in the tower and you see the view and it’s really attractive,” he says. “My office is right here overlooking the river and it’s beautiful.”

With the view and revitalized entertainment downtown, Lewis says he’s has been approached about converting some space into residential. Although he’s not looking to make the building mixed use, he allows that could happen at some point.

In Youngstown, however, entertainment and lifestyle developments have landlords at the bank towers looking to capitalize on the mixed-use trend. Over the years, the names have changed for the four towers that still house banks – the most recent being Premier Bank, whose signage replaced the iconic Home Savings and Loan Co. in July. Other towers that maintain bank anchors include the Huntington Bank Building, which opened in 1909 as Mahoning National Bank, and First National Tower, which was built in 1929 as the Central Savings and Loan. Chase Bank has been closed since March, but still has its space at 6 Federal Plaza West. That building opened in 1926 as the headquarters of the First National Bank, and later merged with Commercial Bank to become Union National Bank.

First National Tower at 1 W. Federal Plaza lost its biggest tenant in June when the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber relocated from the 15th and 16th floors there to City Centre One. Don Thomas of Platz Realty Group, agent for the property, says the loss was “a huge disappointment to the new ownership.” In November 2019, Big Blue Properties LLC Series XXI, based in Henderson, Nev., bought the tower for $1.14 million.

Thomas believes Platz has a tenant to fill the space and, at press time, said he would know by the end of September. If the plan doesn’t come to fruition, however, he is considering taking the space in a different direction by coupling the floors and converting them into a restaurant.

The owner of First National Tower is considering restaurant and living space. 

“That might make some sense to the restaurant and entertainment trade in downtown,” he says.

Converting floors into residential space is also a consideration, Thomas says.

With buildings like Realty Tower and Wick Tower, residential properties downtown are “percolating along at a nice clip,” he says. “All those buildings are north of 90% occupied on the residential side. So there’s some opportunity there.”

It would be simple to convert the floors, he says, because each already has water and sewage. Thomas envisions maintaining the central hallway on each floor, which leaves some 2,000 feet of space on each side that could be converted into flats that would have more of a house footprint than an apartment.

“Structurally, it’s certainly possible and doable. And it’s something the owner is contemplating,” he says. “We think it would actually be a pretty cool building to do something like that in.”

This year, Platz secured five new tenants for First National Tower, bringing occupancy to 54%, Thomas says. “As long as the economy continues to show good positive direction, I anticipate those will start to ramp back up.”

Having that much vacant space, however, makes operating the building a challenge, he says. If fully occupied at its advertised lease rates, operating costs would make up 30% of its gross revenue. Today, it makes up about 52%, he says. “Unless you’re somewhere north of 65% to 70% occupancy, you just lose money,” Thomas says.

It’s one of the reasons 16 Wick Ave., the former Dollar Bank building, is virtually empty, according to Thomas.

Lease rates for downtown office space have come down “to where it’s just break even,” he adds. When demand was high, Thomas estimates rates were at $12 to $15 per square foot, adjusted for inflation. Today, First National’s rates are down to $8 to $9 per square foot, he says.

“Demand has gone down, so prices have gone down. When prices go down, then building maintenance suffers,” he says.

Still, many of the floors recently were renovated and “we’re just continuing to work through those renovations,” Thomas says. The $1.2 million upgrade planned for the 78,000-square-foot tower is still in play, although the pandemic delayed the timetable.

All tenants have access to the 17th floor conference room, which features a kitchen and bathrooms so it can host long meetings or receptions. Each floor has fiber internet access as well.

Meanwhile, the Frangos Group is considering alternatives for space within Chase Tower in Youngstown at 6 Federal Plaza West, says Jeff Hamm, regional vice president. The company is awaiting official word from Chase whether the bank will vacate its downtown space, he says.

“They haven’t officially told us that. But we believe that they will, based on what we’ve heard,” Hamm says.

The Frangos Group is weighing its options should Chase leave and courting potential tenants for the rest of the available space in the 14-floor tower, which is at 40% occupancy.

Should Chase leave, Hamm says the building still has tenants that would serve as good anchors to attract a new tenant for the main floor space.

Several people from in and outside of the region have come to look at the building, Hamm continues. Should the main floor be vacated, he says all options are on the table to fill it, from another bank to an upscale steak house or ballroom to feed off of the DoubleTree by Hilton Youngstown Downtown.

Options for Chase Tower in Youngstown include a steak house, Jeff Hamm says. 

“Everything is up in the air right now,” Hamm says. “I think that there is something new that can be put there.”

Built in 1928 and designed by Walker & Weeks, Cleveland, the Chase Youngstown building is fully intact and features an ornate lobby with the original marble, plaster and brass finishes. It’s listed for sale at TheFrangosGroup.com for $2.75 million. Lease rates for five available spaces range from $7.95 per square foot to $10.

Pictured above: The view from the Huntington Bank Building in Warren is one of its main draws, says Steve Lewis.