Wednesday, May 31, 2006

the reality of the realty

Special thanks to the posters at for putting up information about a soon-to-be rennovated building that will house apartments right in the heart of downtown. The three room apartments on the west side of the building should offer great views looking down the heart of Federal Street.

Here are some images of the Reality Tower as found on the website of the developer:

This is a great step in the building of a residential community in our downtown. Kudos to the private sector for stepping up and making an investment.

- - -

Can architecture, urban design and city planning help turn things around?

Steve Lott from the Cleveland Pain Dealer tackles this question in today's newspaper. You can read this thoughts here.

Perhaps the upcoming new building for the school of business on YSU's campus can have a "cutting-edge" design that impacts the pride of the residents of Youngstown. Should it be a beacon of light as you drive along interstate 680? Or should it be Youngstown's first "green building"? Or blend seemlesslessly into the surrounding neighborhood? Maybe it can be all three.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

eminent domain debate is heating up

Sides are being taken on the eminent domain issue in Youngstown.

The debate is heating up over the proposed Lincoln-Rayen-Wood Development District project located between the YSU campus and the downtown.

I watched a city council meeting over the weekend (found here) which included statments from three people during the public comments section of the meeting. Speaking on behalf of property owners in the area were Colleen DiVito, owner of University Pizzeria & Italian Eatery; Marie LaCivita, owner of Youngstown Plant and Flower Inc; and Jim Villani, speaking in place of Joe Grenga who is owner of Grenga Machine & Welding Co. (There was also one additional gentleman whose name I did not get) If I got these names wrong, I apologize. It was a little hard to hear all the names via the internet stream.

One assertion was that they became aware of the project after the plans were designed. Another interesting concern/claim was if the city chooses to zone the area as "institutional" then the value of the propery dramatically falls. I don't know if this will happen in this case, or if this normally happens when re-zoning occurs, but one thing I do know is in January I ate a tasty pepperoni roll at the University Pizzeria place and used their wi-fi connection. The owners did a really nice job of rennovating the place and maintaining its upkeep. Depending on your view, the same cannot be said for other properties in the area, with the ouside of many of the properties adding to the vacant and uninhabited feel of the area.

Many will argue this last point is moot however. They contend it doesn't really matter how pretty you keep your property because essentially it's private property.

But Mr. Villani, owner of the Pig Iron Press (another longtime downtown establishment) on Phelps Street contends that the process of the Lincoln-Rayen-Wood Development was not perfect either. He claims that the process itself runs counter to the themes expoused by the Youngstown 2010 program. All of the three speakers did a nice job of expressing their points, but concerns about the problems with the process can spark a whole other debate.

Simply put, when people feel "shut-out" of the process, whether it is a justified or unjustified feeling, resentment builds. I have been involved in quite a few negotiations where the issue is one of mostly distrust between the stakeholders, instead of the plans on the table. In those cases, the trust issues needed to be worked out before a comprehensive solution can be brought forward. Mr. Villani suggested in his remarks that maybe all stakeholders need to start the process again to reach an optimal solution.

Maybe a plan can be developed which benefits the university with increased expansion, the city with increased connectivity, and the businesses with increased economic opportunities.

A new book came out in the city planning/urban design community named Designing Public Consensus which contains a case study highlighting Youngstown and the 2010 process. Written by Barbara Faga and her staff at EDAW, the book "presents examples of the interaction between architects, planners, landscape designers, engineers, and the public." Maybe there are tidbits in this book describing Youngstown that can be applied to the Wood-Rayen-Lincoln case.

A public meeting about the Wood-Rayen-Lincoln Development District will be held on Friday June 2nd at 2:30pm at the University Pizzeria. (133 Lincoln Avenue) Maybe people who attend this meeting will want to provide an synopsis of the meeting under the comments section of this blog posting. (subtle request for additional content)

(side note: EDAW's Atlanta offices can be found in the rennovated Biltmore building in the midtown neighborhood. It is a great example of a once down-and-out abandoned hotel filled with squatters that has become a beautiful building filled with restaurants, offices, and residences. I recommend Mickey's restaurant on the ground floor of the Biltmore, as their lunch menu is great and Mickey is a nice gal. I do not recommend the Toast restaurant on the back side of the building. And in case you are ever thirsty, there is club in the basement of the building that offers free martinis on Mondays.)

march 31 UPDATE It seems there was some type of press conference in front of city hall soon after I made this posting. Media reports of the press conference from Wednesday's papers can be seen here and here.

Monday, May 29, 2006

what creates a memory of a city?

On this weekend where we collectively consider memories, I did a quick search about "Youngstown" limited to other blogs websites. Here is a collection of interesting blogs that have been posted recently, adding to the collective memory of the region on the internet. Is the Mahoning Valley:

turning the corner? (link)

a role model for New Orleans? (link)

a penal colony? (link)

a source for magazine pin-ups? (link)

a good place for a night out? (link)

a teacher of life's lessons? (link)

All of these comments, added up over the years and spread from person to person, may form our image in the future.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

between the rues in Montréal

scattered throughout the Plateau neighborhood of Montréal

are murals

big and small


in the alleys

peaking around corners

waiting to be seen

and photographed

maybe some could hide in our downtown...

Monday, May 22, 2006

are there enough voices when making those choices?

I listened to another good podcast over the weekend that was held at the City Club (from December 2005). Speaking first was David Abbott, Director of the George Gund Foundation in Cleveland. He was followed by Carolyn Lukensmeyer, President of AmericaSpeaks in Washington DC, the organization administering the Voices & Choices forum for Northeast Ohio.

If you haven’t heard of Voices & Choices, it’s a pretty cool idea. A bunch of philanthropic and civic organizations pooled together their resources to form the “Fund for Our Economic Future”. The “Fund” has contributed to a variety of recent economic development efforts including local grants, economic benchmark reports, and the Voices & Choices forum.

There are a variety of approaches that communities can follow to create strategies for economic development. One is to hire outside consultants to analyze a region and make recommendations. Another angle is more of a “bottom-up” approach, which is to collect the opinions of the citizens and leaders of a region, collectively using their thoughts to identify the strengths of a region, and plot a course dedicated to the desires of the public. Voices & Choices takes the latter approach, and to date have successfully completed many interviews, and community and region-wide meetings to collect information. Some of their findings can be found here.

Abbott and Lukensmeyer do a good job in explaining Northeast Ohio’s changing role in an über-competitive global economy, as well as presenting the preliminary results in their search for consensus from public opinion. They espouse the Surowieckian (a new word I think) view that the best decisions are made by large and diverse groups.

But two components of their speech made me ponder possible gaps in the methodology:

The first statement that initiated contemplation is the often used and scary statistic that around fifty percent of the students in the region’s central urban school districts do not graduate from high school. My question is this: do high-school dropouts have a voice within Voices & Choices? Their agenda right now is entering a phase of interviews with thousands of individuals around the region. My only concern is that the civic-minded people who care about the region constitute the overwhelming majority of the interviewees. Perhaps a geographically diverse, age diverse, and racially diverse group is being interviewed – but maybe there are other sectors of diversity that can be reached out to as well.

When I send a mass email to my friends inviting them to participate in something, usually other college-educated twenty-somethings are the recipients. I’m not trying to be non-diverse, it’s just that's who compromises the majority of my social contacts so far in life. I just hope the extension of the social network chain in the Voices & Choices interview process is picking up the most diverse group possible.

The second statement that got my attention was the immense concentration of these interviews that will take place with other Northeast Ohioans. It made me wonder that if only residents of NEO are interviewed, this may also be a less diverse bunch. As an experiment, it would be interesting to use the alumni organizations of local universities (or another group) to initiate interviews with former residents of the area, and see if there is a difference in the responses. This idea may contrast with the concept that the best base for decision-making is the people that live here, but it can also be said that people who left may have an interesting point of view, including diverse reflections and suggestions. Now that they have left the area and seen outside of the region, they might have extremely valuable ideas.

Regardless of who you are, I’m sure the people at Voices & Choices would care about your opinions. (to my surprise they made a link to my two-month old blog off their own blog site). Click here to find out how to get involved and have your opinions heard.

Friday, May 19, 2006

the appearance of Federal Street in twenty years

This month’s YAEDA meeting included presentations by Dave Trabert of Channel 33 and Mayor Jay Williams. Mr. Trabert’s observations about how the community perceives itself were particularly interesting and insightful. The entire event can be seen here.

I singled out some of Jay Williams’ points from that night to frame a debate which I have written about in the past on other websites, but not particularly on my own blog. Mr. Williams made references to such things as “a different atmosphere when you come downtown” and “it’s great to see the trees illuminated” and “each destination downtown does not need hundreds of parking spaces right next to it”. I don’t really want to get in the habit of putting words in the Mayor’s mouth, but perhaps he would agree with the following statement: our downtown is an unique place in the Mahoning Valley that may benefit from landscaped boulevards not inundated with excessive parking.

I bring this up because of the possible changes that may happen to West Federal Street, using the same style that occurred along East Federal Street. I would like this blog posting to be a reservoir for public comments on the issue. Please add your opinion, either agreeing or disagreeing with later points.

First a caveat before my comments: I acknowledge you choose projects based upon your budgets, and not upon ideal conditions, and that the city can only afford certain things.

I have spoken to people who do urban planning in different cities across America who have come to Youngstown and looked at the remodeling of our main street. Four criticisms have always been repeated to me over and over again:
(a) Too much concrete in the most recent design.
(b) Diagonal parking may be convenient for businesses, but may be hard for vehicles to back out of and is an inefficient use of street space.
(c) The exposed electrical box in the central island looks out of place.
(d) The benches are small and not too practical nor comfortable.

And I would like to add an additional comment:
(e) Removing the trees and flowerbeds from the central median would detract from the beauty of the streetscape. Future plans for Wick Avenue and 5th Avenue show adding medians, which seems like a step in the opposite direction than what the university is planning.

But to be sure, additional factors such as handicapped accessibility, parking proximity to businesses, and new sidewalks are also factors that should impact the final design considerations.

But my fear is this: by not incorporating attractive design criteria into our remodeling efforts, we may have streetscape just a bit “off” that will not change for thirty years. By ripping out the trees, the existing brickwork, and the lampposts that currently occupy the space, and replacing them with mostly concrete and parking spaces, are we moving backward instead of forward? Can we have a Federal Street that incorporates both smart function and good design into the final product?

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

writings on the wall

I took a bike ride the other day to the nearby town of Leiden. They have done interesting things with the facades of some of their buildings. Stretched before me next to one storefront was an enormous three-story poem by e e cummings.

I thought this was really a simple, yet inventive way to add some art to an otherwise empty area. Here’s another one in Czech (?):

The other day outside the Mont-Royal metro stop in Montréal there was another such artwork, but this one was built into the brickwork of the building. Also very cool.

Would something like this be welcome in downtown Youngstown? Maybe in the courtyard of Cedar’s? or perhaps on the exposed brick in the parking lot next to the business incubator . . .

All we would need is a wall, some off-white paint, someone with steady hand that can cover some brickwork with two stories of words, and a poem to use.

We could hold a competition each year . . . one wall dedicated to an established poet, another to a local author, and another to a student from a local school district. Mix the young and the old. Mix poetry festivals with art downtown. The writings can change from year to year, creating an organic canvas that progresses through time.

Monday, May 15, 2006

let's start an International Neighbors Group in youngstown

A few weeks ago, I became a member of a little organization in town named the International Neighbors Group. It’s mainly composed of locals who are interested in meeting newcomers to town from other cultures. Some of the members meet every week for coffee and conversation; another bunch meets every week for crafts and cultural exchange. I’ve mainly stuck to monthly bigger events like road trips, and Dutch classes in volunteer’s homes. An individual is pretty much free to attend whatever one wants.

I’ve been especially happy with my Dutch classes recently, organized by a professor’s wife in the middle of the old town. Her house has stunning views of the four oldest churches and the main canal through town. Each week, five other students and myself sit around the table in her home as she prepares snacks and we talk in Dutch. Here is a picture of a recent snack, beschuit mit aardbei:

It’s basically a toasted piece of bread spread with butter, with sliced strawberries and grain sugar sprinkled on top. It’s a simple gesture to have snacks and tea in the afternoon, but one that has made a big impact to me, a virtual stranger in a new country. I think we should start this type of organization in Youngstown.

Who’s with me?

We tend to think of Youngstown State as a place attracting people only from the region, but that’s just not true. Many students from a variety of countries get their degrees here. This week when YSU has their spring commencement, they will present an honorary degree to the Undersecretary of Energy from Kuwait. His son will be graduating with a degree in chemical engineering.

It would be great to have an organization to welcome and assist new international students and immigrants in our community. Here are a few positive benefits this type of organization may provide:

- It’s helpful for arrivals from other countries to become oriented to our city and region. Small things such showing the location of ethnic markets, demonstrating how to use public transportation, and assisting newcomers with the paperwork that often comes with relocation may ease their transition to Youngstown.

- Organizing monthly events around the community, as well as around Northeastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, may present newcomers with a sense of the cultural things we Youngstowners find important, plus provide economic support for local attractions. Students especially may enjoy this if they don’t own a car.

- Teaching English to newcomers, their spouses, and their children may supplement their already existing language skills.

- If strong connections are made with students, they may be more interested in becoming future employees or entrepreneurs in the region, adding to the knowledge-based economy and diversity.

- If engaged students instead decide to return home, they might have a greater understanding of our nation’s and region’s traditions and values, making them good ambassadors to others never to visit this country.

- Treating our international friends well now may encourage future investment in local businesses, future support of local tourism, and future lifelong friendships.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

this is just to say

Thanks to Sunny for posing for this picture . . .

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox
and which
you were probably
saving for breakfast
Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

"this is just to say"
by William Carlos Williams

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

City Club strikes again

No sooner than I created this post about the growing movement to insert youth into the board of directors for community organizations, did another fine program from the City Club find its way into my iTunes.

Today's installement was by Gene Krebs, who is the State Director of Greater Ohio, an organization committed to "promoting — through research, public education and grassroots advocacy — public policy to grow our economy and improve our quality of life through intelligent land use." Gene addressed the issue of eminent domain, especially in the sense of what causes these land use struggles to be created in the first place. You can (and should) listen to the entire hour-long presentation here.

a couple of interesting statistics he cited in his presentation:

In the past six years in Ohio . . .
- the poverty rate has increased from 12% to 17% of the population.
- the unemployment rate has increased from 4.3% to 6%
- number of people on Medicade has increased 45%
- number of people using food stamps has increased 29%
- has become the number one state in mortgage foreclosures.

Besides these statistics, he also had two lines in his speech which screamed out to me:

..."they [the growing knowledge-based employee set] carry their manufacturing plants on their head - these are their smokestacks. And they will locate their manufacturing plant where there are good shops, high-speed internet access, in a walkable community that enables a certain quality of life."

"Ohio is still focused on 1970s-style smokestack chasing instead of the strategic marketing of its strengths and pursuit of sustainable economic activity. Now our state and local devleopment agencies act as real estate agents for companies searching for areas with cheaper taxes"

Do you agree with him?

I believe the eminent domain topic is heating up in Youngstown, especially with the issue of the university planning to connect more to the downtown, and the existing proposal to acquire property to create an extension of Hazel Street through mostly blighted, but occasionally inhabited property.

Gene makes the astute remark that politicians hate using the eminent domain option and follows it up with some examples. He continues to elaborate more in his speech on some solutions. Click here to see their well-conceived policy agenda.

Cool. I was really excited to discover this organization today. (Did you know they have a Mahoning Valley representative?) I still want to learn more about this organization. Their spring 2006 briefing can be found here. Maybe you can read it with me, and provide some ideas for future posts on this website.

RECENT UPDATE: Just found this whilel surfing their site: Gene Krebs will be in Youngstown NEXT WEEK on May 18th giving a presentation at the Fellows Riverside Gardens at Milk Creek Park. The event will be a lunch at noon ($10), with policy discussions and breakout sessions to follow. Mayor Jay Williams will also be a presenter. For more information and to register, click here.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

gay rights and economic development

There is continuing debate in the state of Ohio to create laws to define the rights of homosexual couples to engage in such actions such as the adoption children and the ability to marry. Regardless of where you fall on this issue, this response (which I truncated) from the FAF's blog (thanks to the link from George at Brewed Fresh Daily) really caught my attention:

[after describing recent proposals to limit gay rights]

Realistically, I know I'll be living here for at least another year, until I've completed my graduate program. And during that time I'll be reading and fuming about further ways Ohio will tell me to go f**k myself.

But after? I'm finally realizing I have to get out. Another state? Another country? I don't know yet.

But there has to be a place that will value what I offer. That won't try to beat me down repeatedly. That won't tell me that I'm the cause of society's ills. That I'm second class. That I'm disgusting.

People will say I'm letting them win if I leave. They'll tell me that I need to stand up and fight to take back this state. But I don't see that I will. I don't see that I can.

Wow. Strong words.

I think we can also look at this issue as not just a religious one, or a social norms one, or a social justice one, but from an economic development perspective as well.

As an exercise, I'm going to choose the often-debated statistic that 2% of the population is gay. Different people will tell you different values on this statistic, but just scale up the numbers if you want to recalculate the following:

According to the Department of Labor Statistics there are 5.3 million workers employed in Ohio. If 2% are homosexual, that means there are about 100,000 workers of this orientation that actively contribute to the economy of the state of Ohio - who work across a spectrum of industries, including knowledge-based jobs critical to Ohio's future.

It's a problem if 100,000 people in this state believe who currently live here believe they will be accepted somewhere else, and are willing to leave to find a place more accepting of who they are.

But I don't think this argument can be limited to whatever percentage of the population is gay. Many, many, many more people WANT to live in a society where diversity and their neighbors are accepted, and these people are an even greater chunk of the population. They want an inclusive Ohio, and when people complain about the "brain drain" in this state they need to realize that for many people the social environment is just as important as the economic environment when they choose to live here. An anti-gay stance by state legislators chases away straight people too.

Some may feel it cheapens the debate to take a social rights issue and make it a dollars-and-cents one. But I believe if you really care about the future of Ohio's economy, you should take steps to make Ohio attractive to all people, and not just a select few.

Monday, May 08, 2006

are there seats at the table for younger people?

The City Club of Cleveland has been posting podcasts of their past presentations over the past few weeks, and one was downloaded into my iTunes yesterday which particularly caught my attention. It was by Rebecca Ryan, who is the founder of Next Generation consulting. She did some consulting work for many midwestern cities, including Akron. The entire presentation can be listened to by clicking on this link.

One of her central talking points is the necessity for a community to accept younger people on their civic orgnization's boards of trustees. She cited how Akron recently added four seats on board of their Chamber of Commerce, in the attempt to engage younger people and entrepreneurs in the area. A recent posting on this blog reviewed academic research that theorized one reason for the stuggles of Youngstown is that the leadership of the civic organizations throughout the years have been a fairly homogeneous bunch.

Should the boards of Youngstown-based organizations take this idea to heart?

My question is this: what number of the board of trustees of the following organizations are held by people younger than 50 years old?

- The Butler Institute of American Art
- The United Way of Mahoning Valley
- The Youngstown Symphony Society
- The Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber
- Wick Neighbors Inc.
- The Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County

The reason I chose these institutions is that they will be important drivers for the future of Youngstown. I have no clue who comprises their executive boards and leadership and I am not critizing them, but it may be an interesting exercise for these organizations to analyze their own leadership. maybe the best leaders are those who have been in the Valley for a while and with the most connections and experience. But maybe their future success will depend on the engagement of younger generations and where they receive their ideas for the future.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

new life for the paramount?

The Youngstown Vindicator just posted this story a few minutes ago about an Illiniois company purchasing the Paramount Theater along Federal Street. I must admit I was extremely excited to hear the news about the potential rebirth of this building, especially counter to other proposals to rip it down and replace it with a shiny new parking lot. We will now wait and see if these ideas become reality. Existing pictures of the interior can be found here.

Kudos to those who continue to see value in both historic structures and the potential for adaptive reuse of buildings.

A previous post on this blog discussed a recent trip to see a movie in a theatre that had a bar inside. Perhaps this sort of concept can make the whole "art-indy-film" draw an even more profitable venture. I also believe that Youngstown lacks a cool music venue that can fit 200-400 people comfortably for some rock concerts. One of my favorite haunts in the city of Atlanta is the Variety Playhouse which has really great almost-popular bands playing there every week. There, owners took an old movie house, added some speakers, placed folding chairs and tables around the dance floor, and built a bar that serves local brews from the area. (a recent posting contained at has info about the B&O brewery opening back up)

Can this same type of concept work in Youngstown? As anything else, the support for events and the capital to invest must exist to make this type of place a success. But we are moving in the right direction.