Ideas Proposed Decades Ago Now Becoming Reality

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Imagine the Youngstown central business district dominated by a shimmering, 30-story glass tower that is home to an upscale luxury hotel and convention center.

Or, an East Side teeming with recreational activities such as a marina on McKelvey Lake and a town center reflective of a “suburb within a city.”

Or, neighborhood initiatives on the north and south sides designed to lure new retail and residential development to stem the population exodus from the city.

Such was the vision of city planners and officials who proposed grand ideas to redefine the landscape and guide Youngstown into the future. These ideas, proposals, plans and great designs for the city date to the early 1950s and continue through the present day. They are housed in three filing cabinets in Community Development Agency offices in 20 Federal Place.

While there is no gleaming 30-story luxury hotel downtown and proposals for other neighborhood redevelopment efforts never came to fruition, many of the ideas that some thought far-fetched are, to a degree, being implemented or have been executed.

“It’s always where we start,” says CDA director Bill D’Avignon. “It’s always been at least a starting point when we look at developing any new strategy. We look at anything that still might be relevant.”

Nearly 300 city development plans are housed in CDA archives, all of them addressing an array of issues related to the growth and future of Youngstown. There are studies that project population trends, comprehensive plans, development ideas for areas of the downtown and specific neighborhoods, housing studies, crime data – and much more.

Economic realities and the migration of the city’s population to the suburbs precluded the execution of many of these plans, D’Avignon acknowledges. However, many still serve a purpose more than a half-century later.

“Sometimes, the ideas proposed in plans are not grounded in any kind of reality,” he says. On the other hand, others have held their value and serve as a template for what could be done, and what isn’t feasible given the city’s resources.

Take for example a development plan city planner Frank Russo prepared in 1980. The effort, known as the “Youngstown Keystone Plan,” envisioned a downtown with a 30-story tower paneled with reflective glass that reaches 1,250 feet and overlooks the central business district. The structure was to contain a world-class luxury hotel and convention center that wrapped around the Stambaugh Building and have entrances on Commerce Street, Wick Avenue and West Federal Street. And the structure, the plan boasts, would be “visible [to drivers] from a distance of 15 miles” traveling the Interstate system that serves the region.

The development was to reflect the city’s steel heritage with a “pit lounge” dubbed the Open Hearth as well as an atrium 80 feet high, a pool, and guest rooms.

“Why Youngstown?” the plan asks rhetorically. “Why not Youngstown?” it responds.

Along with the hotel and convention center, the plan suggests improvements to the corridor along Commerce Street, envisioning a pedestrian and entertainment link to Wood Street to the north and Youngstown State University. An open-air amphitheater is earmarked for land between the two parallel streets, braced by waterfalls from the elevated terrain.

Thirty-five years later, elements of this plan are either completed or in motion. A hotel – a DoubleTree by Hilton ironically inside and not towering over the Stambaugh Building – is in its last stages of securing financing, albeit not the grandeur of the 1980 plan.

An amphitheater, though not in the location preferred in the Keystone initiative, is likely to be developed near the Covelli Centre on land between the South Avenue and Market Street bridges along the Mahoning River.

And instead of a convention center, the city opened the Covelli Centre in 2005.

The 1980 plan lamented that “big town” entertainers usually bypassed the Mahoning Valley, but referenced singers such as Frank Sinatra and Big Band performers who once included Youngstown on their tour itineraries during the 1940s.

That’s changed since the arena opened. In December, international pop star Elton John announced that he would play his third Youngstown show March 22 at the Covelli Centre.

As for the arena, a feasibility and economic impact study for a civic center was first proffered in 1968 in a plan prepared for the Citizens Planning Council, according to a data base that contains a list of city plans. In 1994, the idea was resurrected as part of a long-range plan to redevelop the West End of downtown, at that time still ridden with blight.

“Those were all looked at when we were considering the Covelli Centre,” D’Avignon says.

Elsewhere throughout the city, executing early plans proved impossible because of a deteriorating economy throughout the Mahoning Valley in the wake of the retrenchment of the steel industry.

In 1962, the City Planning Commission adopted its Development Plan for Northeast Youngstown, an ambitious effort to redevelop the East Side.

At the time, the East Side represented the best opportunities for additional residential growth because it possessed the largest undeveloped green space within city limits.

Central to the plan was the creation of McGuffey New Town, a development that was to include new single-family housing units, a town center occupying 26 acres on Jacobs Road that included retail and professional offices, and a museum dedicated to educator William Holmes McGuffey.

Another aspect of the plan was to establish McKelvey Park, a 740-acre recreational area on McKelvey Lake that was to boast a beach and marina open to non-motor boating. The objective was, in essence, to create a “suburb within a city,” the plan said.

All of this, however, hinged on the completion of a single infrastructure project: The Hubbard Expressway. That project called for a highway connection to Interstate 80 through this part of the city that would open a portion of the East Side to future development. It was never built, and thus plans for McGuffey New Town sit in a filing cabinet.

Still, even parts of this plan found their way to reality. A new single-home housing neighborhood, Beechwood Estates, was developed during the 1990s around McKelvey Lake.

“You need plans to have a little vision,” reflects Pat Ungaro, mayor of Youngstown from 1984 to 1997 and today the administrator of Liberty Township. “Sometimes it’s a waste of money, but you need them.”

Ungaro, who served on City Council in the late 1970s and early 1980s, says one obstacle in pursuing serious development in the neighborhoods was that the city had neither ownership nor control of much of the land it sought to improve. That allowed speculators to swoop in and buy houses on the North Side they converted into rental units and duplexes.

In 1980, the city adopted two Neighborhood Strategy Area – or NSA – plans for the North Side and South Side. The South Side plan advocated redevelopment of the neighborhoods bordering Mill Creek Park and included new entrance signs composed of timber and stones to streets and the Mill Creek Community Center. Other initiatives in the five-year plan targeted redevelopment of the playground and pool. The entire development initiative would have cost the city $1.4 million over the period.

A similar five-year plan was advocated for the North Side and the neighborhoods that border the eastern side of Wick Park. Decorative lighting, bus shelters, and large steel archways were envisioned as entry points to the park. The plan also envisioned a new retail plaza where Elm Street and Madison Avenue intersect.

At Wick and Logan avenues, the plan stressed developing new townhouses, landscaping and trees. The one drawback of this area, the study noted, was the presence of the “Wick Six,” six new-car and truck dealerships that once crowded this section of the North Side. According to the plan, the dealerships “gradually eroded the residential image of the neighborhood.”

To help improve the aesthetics of the area, the plan called for decorative steel pipe archways to the entrance of each dealership while rehabilitating the Saranac playground by adding new softball and football fields. The Wick Park plan would have cost $3.4 million to execute over five years.

By the mid 1990s, the “Wick Six” dealerships had relocated to Boardman, vacating this section of the North Side.

Today the city owns the land and is putting together an effort to reclaim it. Meanwhile neighborhood groups have launched new initiatives to improve Wick Park and promote efforts to link the neighborhoods with the Youngstown State University campus.

“There was always the idea that we had to tie the university to downtown,” Ungaro says. “There was one plan to open up Elm Street and extend it to the downtown.”

However, Ungaro says his priority as mayor in the wake of the steel shutdowns was to create new jobs. Part of that strategy was transforming former steel mill properties along Salt Springs Road into a productive business park.

“I found out, and learned as I went along, that if you controlled the property you could develop it. We were aggressive,” the former mayor says.

Ungaro’s plan led to the development of the Salt Springs Industrial Park, Performance Place Park along Poland Avenue, and eventually the Ohio Works Business Park

Downtown struggled during the 1980s, Ungaro continues. But the first step in laying the groundwork for recovery was purchasing most of the vacant buildings and turning them over to the newly created Youngstown Central Area Community Improvement Corp.

Gradually over the years, the CIC either demolished the structures that couldn’t be reclaimed, opened the land for redevelopment with new government buildings, or sold those buildings to private interests that set out to rehabilitate them.

Ungaro emphasizes that a plan might sit on the shelves or in a filing cabinet for decades before its goals are fully realized, although the outcomes often turn out different than the original vision, as in the case of downtown.

“Twenty years later, it’s working,” he says.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.