Friday, November 17, 2006

Why West Federal Street Shouldn’t Look Like East Federal Street

While the new Federal Plaza has certainly been well received, the removal of the West Federal Street median (Vindy article here) for the purpose of additional parking seems unwarranted. While there has been a marked increase in downtown activity as of late, I have yet to notice a shortage of parking. Do we really need the extra spots on the street? Is there a way to satisfy any additional parking needs with a deck that serves the west end of town? The things that have me concerned about the total removal are:

1) The disruption that will be caused to new businesses on West Federal.

At this tender moment in Youngstown’s re-emergence, when every single event held in downtown contributes to its renaissance, the severe disruption to traffic and to the walkability of Federal Street during the long construction process threatens to drive people away. It offers them a reason to avoid downtown.

2) Variety is the spice of life.

To make West Federal look like East Federal (as depicted above in this doctored photo) is to take away a big part of its character. “But West Federal didn’t originally have a median,” you say? True, the boulevard is not a part of our own historic architectural language, but it is there now, and, compared to its cousin “Federal Plaza (circa 1970’s)” it is a sensitive addition. Besides, having different features and design styles throughout a city is a way of marketing to diverse groups and thereby creating a lively street. Which brings me to…

3) The median offers a way to manage the space.

The best explanation for this can be found in “How to Turn a Place Around” by Project for Public Spaces, Inc. The following pictures and text were borrowed from that book:

A main street is not a highway. One should not fear crossing the street so much that the activity needs to occur in groups.

Crossing the street should be an easy comfortable activity. Even if you have to wait.

4) The median has trees

And I mean mature, well-established ones, not just little saplings. I will spare everyone the tree lecture, but be aware of the difference between full grown trees and new plantings from a visual and physical characteristic standpoint. A sapling won't shade your car when you are parked next to it on a 90 degree day.

While there are many more nit-picky arguments for why the median should or shouldn’t stay, these four have a tremendous impact on the urban design of the street and, in turn, its success or failure. Their implications should be considered very carefully before moving forward.

P.S. - Other improvements associated with this project (new curbs, lighting, and paving) are certainly welcome.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Unique Youngstown...

…It doesn’t quite have the same ring as ‘Unique New York,’ but that doesn’t make us any less interesting. I recall reading a piece in Scene magazine several months ago that pointed out the over-usage of 'New York' and 'Manhattan' as adjectives when describing events in other cities. Example: “Come to the hottest New York style night club in town!!” But what do they have that we don't?

The fact is we have a lot to offer. We are a very diverse city with a lot of character, tons of history, and a bright future. So, in order to foster some dialogue, I would like to pose this question to you:

What do you find unique about Youngstown?

It can be anything at all. The beauty of this question is that it is so broad. I suspect that you already have an answer in mind. Maybe it’s a memory that you have of the city or maybe it’s a piece of little known trivia. Hopefully it's positive. I’ll start things rolling with two very different tales…

I was walking around downtown when I asked myself the question. The answer was revealed to me instantly as I looked to the heavens...

Divine intervention? Maybe. Very unique (and intriguing) column capital? Definitely. Truth be told, this column capital (located at S. Phelps and W. Boardman) is probably not really unique. It may very well be a catalogue piece that turns up in other cities across the country. When I first saw it, though, I remember thinking how cool it was. The same excitement comes over me every time I look up and discover a new detail in the city. The tops of buildings are often a great place to find bits of art and whimsy. Therefore, my answer is that Youngstown is unique because of its buildings and building details.

Of course what makes us unique is not only physical. When asked the same question, a friend answered with an exciting tale of the incredible social clubs throughout the city. What he finds exciting about Youngstown is the strong ethnic diversity and social clubs that we have managed to hold on to. The example he gave was of the Palm CafĂ© on Steel Street. Although I have never been there myself, what he described to me sounded wonderful – A weekly spit roast that draws in hoards of people to get a hearty helping of roasted pig or lamb.

I can think of loads of other places around town that have maintained their ethnic roots (think pierogi from St. Stanislaus) while inviting others to join them in celebration (think Gathering of the Irish Clans) and dozens of social clubs that have become institutions (think Avalon Gardens). So...Youngstown is unique because of its diverse associations.

If you think Youngstown is unique, please leave a post today and let us all in on your favorite little piece of it...even if you think it is only important to you. Also, if you have the chance, ask your co-workers/friends/family/bar-tender what their answer would be.

I guarantee you will learn something new and exciting.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Youngstown Homestead Act of 2007 : part II

An interesting series of articles appeared the recent November 2006 issue of Governing magazine. The main story, “Smart Decline”, describes the issues the city of Youngstown must consider as its population has dramatically declined in the past forty years, producing a glut of housing. Much of this housing is beautiful sturdy homes built in the earlier parts of the 20th century as Youngstown expanded beyond its central core.

The main article begins with a roadtrip through the city guided by chief city planner, Anthony Kobak. Two other question-and-answer pieces, one with Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams and the other with Hunter Morrison, Director of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at YSU, are also available.

An interesting policy question develops from this situation . . . How can a city create effective polices to stimulate home ownership and the local housing market?

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Some cities partner with their educational institutions to provide incentives for their employees to become local homeowners. Yale University established the Yale Homebuyer Program in 1994, where employees of the university are offered $25,000 to purchase a home in certain neighborhoods. Their website chronicles the 700th home purchased as a result of this program – representing 5 percent of all homes purchased in the city.

Other cities such as Baltimore offer a laundry list of programs, such as $3,000 toward closing costs, matching grants, and loan assistance. Visiting DC recently, it was interesting to see the Live Baltimore housing program advertising on the metro.

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But do any cities have an education-based housing incentive program? I have not looked around if one exists, but the program might work like this:

Let’s bundle “incentives” into one category. The carrots can include closing costs, property tax abatements, grants for remodeling historic infrastructure, or straight-up cash. The following total amount of incentives would be given to any new homeowner in certain neighborhoods within the city of Youngstown if they can prove they have a diploma from an accredited university:

Bachelor’s degree: $5,000 in incentives
Master’s degree or Law Degree (JD): $15,000 in incentives
PhD or MD: $40,000 in incentives

Of course other stipulations would be added to the program to prevent abuse. Limits on how often one can purchase a house, how much is actually offered, and if the amount is provided at once, or spaced out over time, are details to be considered by the finance department.

And some may argue this is just a form of welfare for those who in the future may be higher-wage earners. That is a legitimate concern, but I wonder if a new medical doctor at St. Elizabeth’s, fresh from medical school with massive amounts of debt, would utilize this program to purchase their first house in the neighborhoods close to the hospital.

Businesses already seem to enjoy this type of investment. For expanding business expecting to grow, the city provides grants and loans to assist. Why shouldn’t the same thing happen for individuals, who in the long run, may provide tens of thousands of dollars to the city coffers in the future?

A quote from Jay Williams within the Governing article got my attention. He said “The city spends upwards of $40,000 or $50,000 for income-eligible citizens to rehabilitate their homes. We've just done that based on a first-come-first-served basis.”

So the structure for this kind of program may exist already. Maybe the incentives can be extended beyond just income-eligible citizens, and go towards degree-holding citizens as well.

A recent post on this blog praised the city of Kalamazoo for its program to reward all city school graduates with a free college education. Housing purchases in Kalamazoo are up, but more importantly, the city sent a signal to the country that it was serious about education – and that concept was picked up by the nytimes in a story this week.

Of course, we want our policies to be effective, not just headline-grabbing, but wouldn’t it be nice for the city of Youngstown be nationally known as a place that rewards its citizens for attaining education? Would it not just improve the housing market, but send a message to the region and possibly the nation that we value higher education?

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So would this idea work? Any thoughts?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Youngstown Homestead Act of 2007 : part I

Earlier this year, Ted Halstead, the founding president of the New America Foundation wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “A Homestead Act for the Twenty-First Century” in which he chronicles various programs that the American middle class has used to attain asset ownership.

The Homestead Act of 1862, for example, awarded 160 acres of land in the American West to every family who lived on the land for five years. Another example, the GI Bill, provided mortgage reduction policies for those who served in the U.S. Military.

Halstead calls for new policies to target the ownership of financial assets, as he claims the gap between the poor and the rich in the country is widening.

He proposes one such policy, that of giving to every newborn in America $6,000 at birth as a down payment on a productive life. With compounded interest, that amount could grow to $20,000 by the time the child reaches 18 years of age, which can then be used towards college tuition, a down payment for a home, seed money for a legitimate business, or retirement savings. In a single year for all children born in America, he estimates the cost to be $24 billion dollars, a much lower amount than what is spent on farm subsidies, foreign wars, or other ballooning government-funded programs.

But what really caught my eye is his article was this statement:

This program “could also offer inner-city kids a new social contract: If they play by the rules and graduate from high school, then a pot of money will allow them to invest in their own futures. Paired with financial-literacy education in schools, such a policy can turn a culture of poverty and dependency into one of hope and opportunity.

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Let’s investigate this idea for our own city:

This gap between the rich and the poor, for both individuals and political jurisdictions, is indeed growing in the Mahoning Valley. In the latest figures from the U.S. Census’ 2005 American Community Survey, the percentage of individuals living below the poverty line in the city of Youngstown has grown to 24.3%.

This same statistical source states there are approximately 4,700 children living in the city of Youngstown less than 5 years of age. So I’m going to estimate there are about 900 children born every year that will be moving into the city limits of Youngstown. A $1,000 investment towards each child for a project like this would cost then annually about $900,000. A $2,000 investment per newborn, would cost about $1.8 million, and so forth.

Under this concept, each child in the city of Youngstown would have a corresponding account attached to their name, which they could watch increase in value as they get older. Other additional components that can be incorporated into this program include:

- The money would only be given to the student if they successfully graduate from a high school within the city limits of Youngstown by the age of nineteen. If the student does not graduate in time, the money reverts back into the system to be distributed to future newborns.

- Only one-fifth of the money in each student’s account will go directly into their pocket, for whatever purpose they choose. The rest of the money can only be used to pay for the student's tuition in universities, community colleges, and technical schools in the Mahoning Valley.

- Financial institutions, such as banks and credit unions with their headquarters in the city of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley will be given the first opportunity to be a partner with this program.

- Students will learn about the existence of these accounts at an early age, and will be educated on the value of investing and compounding interest at various points during their schooling. If desired, students can open additional accounts with the financial institutions that administer their account, which they can have complete control over.

Of course, the details on all this are subject to change (maybe this blog for wandering thoughts will stir some additional calculations), but the central message is clear:

We need to reward students who successfully complete school, we need to support local financial institutions, we need to push students to continue their education beyond high school, and we need some programs to make Youngstown a city where families with children feel welcome to thrive.

Monday, November 13, 2006

following the stars – attracting people, in addition to industry

A bit of interesting research I read in the last few weeks comes from a working paper that can be found on the website of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). This paper was written by Lynne Zucker and Michael Darby at UCLA in April 2006 and is titled "Movement of Star Scientists and Engineers and High-Tech Firm Entry."

Zucker and Darby's earlier research in the late 1990s coined the term "star scientists" to describe very prolific researchers in the field of biotechnology, specifically genetic sequencing. These star researchers were extremely influential to the establishment of the biotechnology industry in America and the success of specific firms, demonstrating how important expert human capital is to economic growth.

Their latest study in 2006 extends the star scientist concept beyond that of just biotechnology. In many scientific fields, even as their research and knowledge within the field spreads over time, the physical presence of these star researchers is key to where high-tech firms develop. They find these "stars" tend to cluster over time, instead of diffusing geographically.

This research compliments the trend in the tech-based economic development world, with regions and states creating incentive programs to attract the best and the brightest researchers across the world to their campuses. The Georgia Research Alliance in the state of Georgia is often used by other states as a model for their programs. Florida State University announced their effort to recruit 200 tenured and tenured-track researchers to their campus in the next 5 years. And sometimes attracting a single faculty member can bring their entire laboratory with them, with multiple graduate students, laboratory technicians, and millions of dollars.

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Is all this leading to a race? A race for the best minds in the research world who are expected to bring increased funding, start-up firms, and an enhanced reputation to campus and the region?

Just like the “smokestack chasing” that many regions in the country use to attract industry through tax incentives, the next wave of incentives offered by regions may lead to “faculty chasing” throughout the country . . .

So while the debate over the best way to attract both industry and individuals is bound to continue, it brings to mind some questions that the leaders of our area may want to consider:

Should Youngstown begin to shift its recruiting efforts away from attracting companies, and more effort be placed in attracting star individuals?

Should Youngstown take steps to protect itself from outside competition, and make sure its existing researchers are as happy as can be, to minimize the possibility of their departure?

Does Youngstown and the region give as much attention to human capital development as they do to site preparation and industrial development?

Should Youngstown and other educational institutions in Northeast Ohio initiate their own multi-million dollar recruitment programs to bring the best and the brightest to the region?

Friday, November 10, 2006

someone new at the table

Dear valued readers,

The “Shout Youngstown” blog is excited to announce a new member to our writing staff.

In celebration of this event, our website will have a full week of new content, which will be updated every day starting on Monday, November 13th. The title for each of next week’s stories will be:

o following the stars – attracting people, in addition to industry
o the Youngstown Homestead Act of 2007 : part I
o the Youngstown Homestead Act of 2007 : part II
o unique youngstown
o why west federal should not look like east federal
o the third function of a university
o a thousand points of light

Our goal is to make “Shout Youngstown” an engaging forum for economic development and urban design in the city of Youngstown, the Mahoning Valley, and Northeast Ohio. We hope the ideas and concepts found within the stories and comments can begin a dialogue for specific plans to enhance our region.

All stories found on the website are indexed by month and subject. Some of the more interesting concepts are highlighted in the “a sample of recent ideas” section.

We look forward to your comments and suggestions.

The Shout Youngstown blog team,

Janko & Ben Trovato