By DAVID SKOLNICK
A preliminary inspection of the former Paramount Theatre shows the front of the dilapidated building isn’t strong enough to stand on its own once the rest of the structure is demolished.
And if the front of the downtown structure cannot be saved, the Paramount Project, a group seeking to turn the property into an amphitheater and outdoor gathering space, may walk away from that proposal.
It likely would cost $900,000 to $1.2 million to secure and save the front of the building, said Rodney Lamberson, executive vice president and a principal with Strollo Architects. The city hired Strollo to develop a plan to take down the 94-year-old building on the corner of West Federal and Hazel streets while attempting to save the front portion.
There is no guarantee that the building’s front can be saved when the rest of the structure is demolished, said Mayor Charles Sammarone and Lamberson.
“I was initially optimistic it could be saved, but after reading the report, it’s discouraging,” Lamberson said. “It’s in a lot worse shape than I expected.”
A report from Centric Engineering, a New Waterford company hired by Strollo for a preliminary site assessment of the building, states: “If the main theater walls were demolished, this would leave no means for the front facade structure to resist wind loading.”
The only chance to save the front would be to erect steel support beams either inside or outside the building while the rest of the structure is demolished, Lamberson said.
“It would be extremely costly and difficult to construct,” Centric’s report states about the beams. Also, “the demolition method selected would need to minimize vibration transfer to the facade structure to reduce the chance of facade pieces being dislodged and break[ing] off,” the report states.
An additional study will be done to determine if the front can be saved, and the cost of saving it if it’s possible, Lamberson said.
“Over the last 10 to 12 years, the building has deteriorated considerably,” he said. “A decision will have to be made to determine if it’s worth [saving], and then someone would have to come up with the money.”
The follow-up study should be done in about a month, Sammarone said.
If money is needed to preserve the facade, it won’t come from the city’s coffers, the mayor said.
“We can’t afford that,” Sammarone said. “If [the Paramount Project] can raise that type of money, OK. But we don’t have the money to save it.”
Also, Sammarone said, there’s no guarantee that an effort to save the building’s facade would work, as the exterior is in such poor condition it could crumble.
“We’d like to see it saved and have the money to do it,” he said. “But if I had $1.2 million, I’d put it into demolition. That building is dangerous. That’s why we want it down. If the report says it’s a 50-50 shot, would you be willing to spend the money on it?”
Michael Morley, co-organizer of the Paramount Project with his wife, Anita Lin, urged the mayor not to rush a decision.
“That is an important historical structure to downtown,” he said. “Our hope is the city and professionals at least try to hire a firm to determine conclusively if [saving the front] is possible and to not act in haste because of the importance of the building.”
The committee wants to raise about $4 million over three to five years to use the front portion for a small restaurant and office space, install a covering over the top of the outdoor gathering space and use the site for events.
When asked if the project would be scrapped if the front can’t be saved, Morley said: “I don’t know. It would change the vision. We want to assess the enthusiasm of the committee before deciding whether to move ahead with raising money to put an amphitheater there. We want to make major improvements to the front to restore it to its original grandeur.”
The former theater is filled with asbestos and structurally unsafe, said Charles Shasho, deputy director of the city’s public works department.
The city received an $803,490 grant from the state in July 2011 for the demolition, with the expectation that the facade would remain, and will pay up to $269,553 for the project. After demolition, the site would be a parking lot for those paying water and wastewater bills at the nearby city hall.
The city bought the theater for $80,000 in November 2010 from Lou Frangos, a downtown property owner.
The building opened in 1918 as the Liberty Theatre for vaudeville acts and silent movies with a 1,700-seat auditorium featuring an aquarium and fountain in the lobby. It was sold in 1929 to Paramount Pictures and renamed the Paramount Theatre. It closed in 1976.
Meanwhile, Sammarone said he wants the Youngstown Central Area Community Improvement Corp., a downtown property development organization, to improve the site of the former State Theater on West Federal Street. The CIC demolished that building in 2008, leaving a very large hole and erecting a metal fence.
“I want a plan to fill in the hole and take the fence down,” Sammarone said. “There’s a lot of development around what is the worst-looking property on the street. Fill the hole. Plant grass.”
The city or local contractors can provide dirt or stone at no cost to fill in the hole, Shasho said.