Cooperation, firmness save the historic Wells Building from the wrecking ball

Thousands of West Federal Street passers-by stared in awe and sadness this summer as the long-feared wrecking ball smashed away at a century of vibrant history in downtown Youngstown. The demolition of the Paramount Theatre has left a void in the Central Business District and has rendered to the scrap heap one of the city’s finest architectural gems.

Fortunately for the downtown, that same bleak fate will not await the historic Wells Building across the street from the former theater. Thanks to the initiative of Strollo Architects and the cooperation of a variety of local, state and federal authorities, the 1917 terra cotta structure will be preserved to its early 20th-century grandeur and revived to meet vital 21st-century needs. The patience, drive and commitment of all players in this valuable project are to be commended and should make the long arduous wait toward its fruition well worth their while.

Strollo’s plans involve spending nearly $5 million to rehabilitate the four-story Wells Building into its corporate headquarters and a 12-unit apartment complex for urban professionals. Delays in securing private financing for the project had threatened receipt of nearly $2 million in state and federal tax credits. That snag, in turn, threatened the project itself.

Thankfully, those threats ended this month, when Ohio agreed to delay the mandatory start date of Aug. 11 by a few months to enable Strollo to tie up loose ends with its financing arrangements. Gregg Strollo, the firm’s president and principal, said he expects that financing to be finalized within the next two months toward a summer or fall 2014 completion of the revitalized Wells complex.

Tax credits

In addition to Strollo, financing assistance is coming from the Ohio Historic Preservation Office with a $1 million tax credit, the U.S. Department of the Interior with an $800,000 tax credit and assistance from the city of Youngstown. The company has preliminary approval from the city for a low-interest $2 million loan, grants of up to $520,000 for water and wastewater improvements, up to $100,000 from the Youngstown Initiative Program and a 12-year real-property tax abatement.

Collectively, the assistance and cooperation of all of the entities will forge significant assets. The project indeed is significant because of the historic value of the Wells Building, the impact it will have on downtown revitalization and its potential to attract even more professional offices and urban residents to the central city.

Historically, Wells is rich. Built in 1917 by the estate of Thomas H. Wells, a prominent Youngstown real estate developer who died in 1905, the building is an exemplary model of the architectural use of white terra cotta (glazed, fired clay). Its cornice, gargoyles, frieze, vases and urns make Wells one of the most ornately decorated structures in the downtown. Over the years, the building prospered as retail businesses, most memorably as a W.T. Grant variety store. Grant’s competed on the same street with the likes of Woolworth’s, McCrory’s and Kresge’s in the mid-20th century heyday of downtown Youngstown as the primary shopping mecca for five counties.

The green light to the restoration project also bodes well for the ongoing revitalization of downtown Youngstown. As redevelopment projects have been completed all around it, the boarded-up facade of the Wells Building stands out like the proverbial sore thumb. Even Strollo officials acknowledged that if progress on redeveloping it did not come soon, its demolition could not have been too far behind.

Private investment

The specific aims of the project also fulfill two ongoing priorities of downtown’s comeback that transcend architecture and history. The commitment by Strollo to invest large sums of its own capital to create a showplace for its reputable architectural firm represents a vote of confidence in the multi-use plan for downtown that will be needed for it to fully thrive. Strollo’s actions should help to spur other professionals — architects, attorneys, physicians — back to the core of the city.

The decision to convert the top three floors into apartments also goes hand in hand with the increasing trend of downtown as hometown. The success of the Realty Towers and Erie Terminal apartment complexes and the promise of 52 additional units at a revitalized Wick Building will enlarge the residential population base of the central city. In so doing, it should also help to establish more resident-friendly businesses, such as grocery stores, drugstores and laundries, to complement the downtown’s growing network of restaurants and nightclubs.

To be sure, the Wells Building renovation stands as a critical piece of the downtown Youngstown redevelopment puzzle. Thanks to the responsible actions of all parties involved in its planning, a symphony of hammers pounding, chainsaws buzzing and engines roaring soon will upstage the dreaded crash and boom of a wrecking ball.

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