By SHEE WAI WONG
It’s too late to save the Paramount Theatre and the Kress Building downtown, but city officials are taking steps to prevent other buildings, such as the Parkway Tower, from following the same path to destruction.
When Charles Sammarone took over as mayor in 2011, he took an aggressive stance on property-code enforcement in part because he believes that people who left Youngstown did so because “they don’t like how the city looks.”
His logic: If you enforce property codes now, you can save historic structures, improve neighborhoods and draw the younger generation back. He expects this to be a long-term process.
“It’s like losing weight. You don’t wait to exercise until you have high blood pressure and a heart attack,” said Sammarone.
In the past two years, 1,500 properties with code violations have been brought into compliance. Some did so voluntarily. In many cases, the city pursued criminal charges to force owners to comply.
“There’s a high rate of prosecution – criminal charges. It helps to bring property up to codes,” said Maureen O’Neil, Neighborhood Improvement Coordinator for the city.
A current example of this effort involves the Parkway Tower, an eight-story building across from Stambaugh Auditorium across from Wick Park. The city is considering criminal charges against the owner, Simcha Vashulem LLC, a property investment group based in Brooklyn, N.Y., that has owned the building since 2007. The company also owns a nearby apartment building on North Heights Avenue. There are no code violations on that property.
The tower, built in 1929, once featured luxury rental apartments for higher-
income residents. The first-floor housed businesses that catered to the residents. With the rise of suburban development after World War II, tenants gradually moved out. The once grand structure, featuring 38 suites and intricately carved mouldings and ceilings, no longer has tenants. Utilities were shut off three years ago. The only income comes from a $60,000-a-year lease with AT&T for a cellular tower on the roof of the structure.
This is one of the rare high-rise apartment buildings in the city, said William Lawson, executive director of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society.
“It is a unique piece of architecture, and it’s historically significant because of its place in time. There are so few examples of it here in Youngstown and the
Mahoning Valley,” said Lawson.
After a series of meetings with the city, the owner agreed to paint the first two floors of the building and demolish a carport and a house that was on the property. Other violations, however, were neglected, said city officials.
What those violations are is difficult to say because the case is in the criminal investigation phase, and Ohio law limits access to all information until charges are filed.
Robert Rohrbaugh, assistant city law director, confirmed he is investigating criminal charges against the owner. The owners did not return calls and emails asking for comment.
If found guilty of non-compliance, the owner could face a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, according to the Youngstown Property Code Enforcement website.
“Now because the matter is a pending criminal investigation, there’s not a whole lot more we can comment on about that — other than it is ongoing,” said Rohrbaugh.
This has not stopped others from speaking up.
“Both local government and people living in the neighborhood [need] to make the owner do the right thing,” said Lawson. “That’s critical, and if the owner sees no difference, they’re not going to do anything other than what they’re currently doing.”
Lawson sees the pressure from the community as the real issue on Parkway Tower. Bill D’Avignon, director of the city’s Community Development Agency, agrees.
“They’ll just need to have the correct amount of pressure put on them,” D’Avignon said. “It’s in an historic district, and we don’t think demolition is an option there.
“Somebody is going to have to step up and take some actions to preserve the structure.”
Donna Buzulencia, a Realtor with Lakeside Realty, said the owner won’t demolish the building.
“This building will not be demolished, for it’s around the Wick Park square. It will cost way too much to demolish,” Buzulencia said in a posted comment on The News Outlet’s web site. “The New York City owners will keep this building and deal with whatever need be done, for they are collecting this $60,000 a year over six years. So, do the math.”
The owner did attempt to sell the building in 2008. But a potential deal fell through because the purchase price wasn’t negotiable, the cost of renovation was too high and the owner wanted to retain the revenue from the cellular tower lease.
Matt Pagac, general manager of Stambaugh Auditorium, has a suggestion.
“I think it would make a great hotel space. We are in desperate need of a hotel for our use, and it’s close to us,” said Pagac.
People, who attend two-day or more business seminars and some performances at the auditorium, usually stay at the hotels in Liberty, Boardman or Austintown. But Pagac said some guests would prefer to stay at a hotel with a walking distance of the city.
“I would think for Youngstown State University, having a hotel close by would be valuable, also.”
When a building is left in disrepair, it affects the whole neighborhood, said Sharon Letson, director of Youngstown Cityscape, a group aimed at beautifying the city and preserving historical landmarks.
Buildings that keep up with the housing code “raise the standard of neighborhoods . If (the owners) neglect the buildings, other may say, ‘Why should I care about mine,’ ” said Letson.
Her group, which has invested significant efforts in the Wick Park neighborhood, hopes the plight of the Parkway Tower will spur the passage of an historic landmark ordinance in the city.
The ordinance would define landmarks and landmark districts that would be somewhat protected from demolition, incompatible alterations and new construction.
“We’ll keep trying to fight for it and get the city on board,” Letson said.
News Outlet reporters Josh Medore and Steve Wilaj contributed to this article.
TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort among the Youngstown State University journalism program, The University of Akron and professional media outlets including, WYSU-FM Radio and The Vindicator (Youngstown), The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio (Akron).