Navigating Downtown Youngstown’s Future

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – An effort focused on downtown’s future will continue regardless of the Realty Tower’s fate, a community leader who’s building a coalition to address the issue said.

“I think we need to continue to move forward,” Scott Schulick said. 

Schulick, president of Youngstown CityScape’s board of directors, emailed a letter last week to more than 50 business and community leaders in the downtown area seeking support for the effort. The email followed the May 28 explosion at the Realty Tower that killed one person, injured several others and displaced building residents.

Monday night, Mayor Jamael Tito Brown’s office announced that the owner plans to demolish Realty Tower, which is owned by YO Properties 47.

The Stambaugh Building, which houses the DoubleTree by Hilton Youngstown Downtown hotel and Bistro 1907, has been closed since the explosion. A structural engineer’s assessment last week determined that the Realty is in imminent danger of collapse without modification. International Towers, which is located next to the Realty Tower, was evacuated, with residents temporarily relocated to assisted living, retirement communities and other sites.

A time frame for demolition hasn’t been announced.

Saving Realty?

A movement is brewing to try to save the Realty Tower.

By midday Tuesday, an image of the building with the message “Save Realty Tower” was being circulated on social media, including by Schulick; Rebecca Keck, president of Students Motivated by the Arts; and Paul Hagman, a local architect who specializes in historic preservation.

The graphic is being presented by a “group of community leaders who are committed to our city,” Keck said.

Hagman called the fate of Realty Tower a “huge deal for downtown.” Losing the building not only displaces its residents but “takes out a significant part of the economic gains we’ve made in the past decade or more.

“So I think we need to do everything we can as a community to ensure that it remains standing and gets rehabbed,” he said. “Whether that means it’s done by the current owners, or whether that means it’s done by someone else, the important part for now is to ensure that it can stabilize and remain standing.”

Hagman said several questions remain in his mind and the minds of others regarding whether the decision to demolish the building is driven purely by financial considerations on the owner’s part or if it’s not feasible to try to save it.

“To justify a decision of that magnitude really requires some backup information” from professional engineers, he said.

The news release from the city provided limited information. 

“But from the information, it didn’t seem like there was an actual owner-hired structural engineers’ report,” Hagman said.

Damage is seen at the Realty Tower on Tuesday.

Within two days of the city’s hiring engineers, a written report provided some information, he said. 

Bill Lawson, executive director of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society, acknowledged he’s neither an architect nor a structural engineer, but he says there’s much information about Realty that’s unknown. He listed the level of its owner’s insurance coverage, as well as what would be involved to repair the damage.

He also pointed out that of the $9 million invested to restore the building around 2008, much of it was public funds. That was when the building was under different ownership.

The public funding includes historic tax credits, a loan from the city that has since been repaid and a tax abatement.

Realty’s History

Construction of Realty was completed in 1924, and an Ohio Historical Marker stands in front of it, one of four in the town’s Central Square.

“It served as the office of the Realty Guarantee and Trust, which was a local trust administrator and real estate developer,” Lawson said.

The company worked in neighborhood and commercial real estate in the city, particularly during the first part of the 20th century, he explained.

One of the architects who designed the building, Morris Scheibel, was renowned for his work in Youngstown in the early 20th century, Lawson said.

Its style is classic revival, and it bears decorative terra cotta.

“It’s really a unique building downtown,” Lawson said. “And it’s a monumental building downtown.

He referred to its size, as well as the public-private investment in its redevelopment and restoration.

“Taking that building out is going to leave a literal, physical hole, but also an economic one, and I don’t see how it will be filled,” Lawson said.

Demolition Process

To demolish it, the building’s owners will need to secure a permit from Mahoning County.

“But this is obviously an emergency, so the process will not hinder their timeline,” said Jeff Uroseva, county chief building official.

The process isn’t long, he continued. The owners will need to submit a schedule of demolition, but because of the emergency nature of the situation, that could be before, after or concurrent with the demolition work. They also will need to submit the procedures that will be used and the seal of the Ohio-licensed engineer that put the plan together.

The process also requires documentation from the Environmental Protection Agency, but that may be eased in emergency situations. Once the documentation is received, approval could take a couple days or be completed the same day the paperwork is submitted.

“Let’s face it – it’s a danger right now,” Uroseva said. “It needs to come down as quick as possible.”

Unanswered Questions

Mark Canzonetta, owner of Bistro 1907, however, has a lot of unanswered questions about what happened.

“I feel it’s a rushed decision,” he said.

Canzonetta said he supports Schulick’s efforts. He also supports the call by many for Brown to step down and the need for leadership with vision and a business background. He’d like a leader who is forward-thinking, with task management and crisis management experience.

“Tito [Brown] is playing duck and cover and won’t answer the hard questions,” Canzonetta said, noting he also wants to know what Brown and his team are going to do to bring guests back for the hospitality businesses downtown. “All of my fellow restaurant and bar owners have been devastated by recent construction and explosion issues.”

A sign for Bistro 1907 is seen on a window at the Stambaugh Building, which also houses the DoubleTree by Hilton Youngstown Downtown hotel.

Canzonetta, who said he wants what is best for the city and has invested six years of his life and huge amounts of capital into his business, believes this situation is yet another roadblock. He questions if the explosion that “rocked me on my chair” and buckled the windows at Bistro 1907 also caused other damage to underground gas lines or nearby foundations.

And he believes it will take a long time, possibly most of the summer, whether the building is repaired or demolished.

“Youngstown and its administration does not have the skill set for this disaster and to see it through properly,” Canzonetta said.

More Downtown Issues

In the meantime, city officials on Tuesday ran caution tape in front of the building at 107 W. Federal St. 

“There’s issues with the front facade,” fire battallion Chief Charlie Smith said. “It’s in the process of being taken care of.”

It’s precautionary.

“As of right now, it’s just for public safety,” Smith said. “We need to get it taken care of.” 

Jimmy Sutman of Golden String Radio owns the building.

“The fire department received a phone call that there was some concern about some cracked brick on the side of this building …,” he said. “They are just cordoning it off in light of the heightened fears because of the Realty building situation.”

Sutman said he knows that the brick is an issue.

“We’re not concerned that it’s structurally sound, but there is a brick issue. So hopefully this will expedite our brick work,” he said. 

That part of the building is a rehabilitation project that’s a joint effort of Golden String Radio and Purple Cat.

“We are expanding our music program,” Sutman said. He acknowledged that the brick needs to be attended to, but he said he’s not fearful it will fall. 

Early Tuesday afternoon, a post on The Federal’s Facebook page said restaurant, which is across Federal Street from where the building is cordoned off, was closed. It said the patio couldn’t be used, and Federal Street in front of the restaurant was being blocked off, making no traffic available on either side of the building or in the front or back. The post said they hope to reopen at 11 a.m. Wednesday.

Preserving Downtown

Regarding the future of downtown, Schulick said since sending the email and the ensuing news coverage, 56 people have responded, wanting to be involved. He’s calling the group a coalition.

One thing to be considered is an economic study of downtown, including the effects of Covid, road construction and the explosion.

Several businesses have closed or moved out of downtown over the past few years. That’s fewer people living, working and spending money and paying taxes there, Schulick points out.

That includes the impending closure of Eastern Gateway Community College.

“All this progress with attracting bars, restaurants and shops over the last several years is either on hold or in reverse from even a few weeks ago,” Schulick said. “How do we bring businesses back? … We don’t want to have all these brand new roads that lead to nowhere.”

Although Realty is privately owned, because public money went into its restoration, Schulick believes the public has a stake.

“There’s more going on in downtown Girard right now than in downtown Youngstown,” he said. “There’s more going on in downtown Hubbard.”

Talking to other cities, including Kent, to learn how they addressed and revived their downtowns should be part of the conversation, Schulick said. 

Late Tuesday morning, the National Transportation Safety Board released its preliminary report of the explosion. The investigation is ongoing, and a final report could take up to two years.

The preliminary report says the agency is focusing its investigation on the pipeline operator’s procedures and practices for meter removal, record keeping and abandoning gas facilities and ownership of the inactive service line. It will also focus on the companies associated with the building, the operational practices of GreenHeart Companies and its policies for work crews.

GreenHeart crews were working in the basement, relocating utility lines, when one of the crew members cut a gas line that had been abandoned. The line, however, was pressurized, and about six minutes later, the explosion happened. The crew didn’t know there was gas in the line.

Residents’ Reactions

Tracey Winbush, one of the residents of Realty Tower, is disappointed the building will be razed. She said she’s surprised the city or the building owners haven’t sought state or federal dollars to help secure the building.

“They moved the Francis Scott Key Bridge out of the bay faster than we dealt with the building,” she said, referring to the March 26 bridge collapse in Baltimore after a container ship struck one of its piers.

About 6 p.m. Monday, Anthony Marchionda, property manager at Live Youngstown Property Management, which manages Realty, emailed building tenants. The email said city officials and the building owner met to work out a comprehensive schedule and plan to make the building safe and reopen downtown.

“To date, the property damages have been discussed with multiple engineering firms,” the email said. “Currently, none of these firms have been able to provide a make safe plan for the structure without limiting their respective liability to levels that are unreasonable. 

“Currently, the building owner is working with the insurance carrier and believes that the building will need to be [razed],” the email said. 

A post on the city’s Facebook page came a couple of hours later.

The area is blocked off around the Realty Tower in downtown Youngstown.

Realty tenants Reniro Jackson and his husband, Charles Cole, have moved to Hawaii and have gotten jobs since the explosion. Cole’s sister and his nephew, who was in the apartment when the explosion occurred, however, remain in Youngstown, staying with family.

“I’ve been mourning for days,” Jackson said. 

His mother’s ashes and photographs from his and his mother’s childhoods remain in the apartment. He had hoped to retrieve them, as well as a few other items, when tenants were told in late May they would be permitted to briefly enter the building to gather belongings. Those plans changed though when access to the building’s fire escape wasn’t available from the outside. Shortly after, the city said no one was permitted in the building because of safety concerns.

Jackson said their new home is beautiful, but it doesn’t fill the void.

“Paradise doesn’t erase the memories that I’ll lose in physical form,” he said. “But we’ll be OK.”

Winbush’s 94-year-old mother lived with her at Realty but has been in a nursing home since the displacement. Her mother is blind but in good health. Winbush has moved into a studio apartment downtown, so moving her mother in with her isn’t practical.

Winbush is upset about the loss of many keepsakes.

“There’s stuff in that apartment I miss every day,” she said. 

She listed obituaries of family members, a collection of antique jewelry, political memorabilia she’s curated over the years and her mother’s rings. 

“You can’t get that back,” Winbush said. “They’re priceless.”

Fortunately, she digitized family photos and stores personal papers at her office, so those items are preserved. But other items, including collectibles signed by the late Jerry West, a renowned basketball player, were not.

“I have a hair dryer signed by James Brown when he was at Powers Auditorium in 2000,” she said. “I can’t get that back, and he can’t sign another one.”

Schulick said the explosion at the Realty Tower is the most recent issue that brought downtown’s challenges to light. But it’s not the only one.

“With Eastern Gateway closing, that’s an entire block that’s going offline, and with the Realty, the restaurant and the hotel, that’s a major block that’s offline,” he said. 

Pictured at top: The Stambaugh Building, Realty Tower and International Towers are seen in downtown Youngstown.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.