German students propose improvements for Youngstown

By David Skolnick


A group of planning students from a German university provided a list of suggestions to improve the city, particularly along its downtown riverfront area.

The proposals include an art gallery, cafe, a bike and walking path at the B&O Station area; turning the vacant Wean United Building into an indoor sports facility and a skating, skateboard and BMX bike area outside it; a farmers market with urban garden, cafe and park to the west of the Covelli Centre; and an industrial heritage park to the east of it.

Also on the proposed list is a paintball course on a vacant industrial site on Albert Street, an outdoor movie theater near Crab Creek, and turning old railroad bridges into a restaurant, a park with retail shops and a pedestrian walkway.

The group of 13 students from the Technical University of Dortmund unveiled the proposals Thursday at the end of a German Marshall Fund of the United States’ program, “Policies and Strategies in Shrinking Cities: The Case of Youngstown, Ohio,” at the Covelli Centre.

The university is in Germany’s Ruhr Valley, which saw its economic base collapse in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Beginning in the late 1980s, it underwent a renaissance turning abandoned factories into cultural and entertainment centers while embracing its industrial past.

The group’s proposals were well-received by city officials, those involved in urban planning and neighborhood activists.

But some pointed out that the proposals, which didn’t include any estimated costs, are likely too expensive for Youngstown.

“A sports complex is a great idea, but to get there costs quite a bit of money,” said T. Sharon Woodberry, the city’s economic development director. “We’d have to find the money to do it. That would be the sticking point.”

Bill D’Avignon, the city’s Community Development Agency director, said, “I’m impressed with all these suggestions. I wish we could do them all tomorrow.”

Also, the city is negotiating with two companies to occupy the vacant Wean United Building, one of downtown’s biggest eyesores, so the students’ proposal for that structure is highly unlikely.

Thorsten Wiechmann, a professor and chairman of Dortmund’s regional planning and planning theory department and the group’s adviser, understood the cost concerns.

“Some aren’t costly, like a skate park,” he said. “Sometimes those become so successful that investors come. You take it step by step. Not to say money doesn’t matter, but if you do the inexpensive parts to start and they’re successful, it will grow.”

The students will work on the proposals when they return to Germany and finalize the recommendations in July.

The students discussed some projects done in Germany’s Ruhr Valley, showing photos of a former elevated railway that is now a 12-mile bicycle track, a former large steel mill that is now a cultural center, and a former coal plant that is a public swimming pool surrounded by the closed factory.

Before the students presented their ideas, a panel discussed Youngstown and its future.

Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a noted housing and community development expert, said the city is making great strides to revitalize its downtown.

But for a few exceptions, the city’s neighborhoods “are struggling at best,” he said. “In some of them, the struggle is over. Some are not dead yet, but really struggling.”

One issue hurting Youngstown is inexpensive quality housing in its suburbs that attracts families , Mallach said. “If you don’t have a school where you can comfortably send your kids to or [don’t] feel comfortable on your block or [you] live near houses that are falling apart,” you’re going to move, he said.

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