By PETER H. MILLIKEN
In a unique effort, the city will seek a state grant to help return 90 deserted acres on the city’s East Side to their natural state.
Under this proposal, the city would acquire all the land, demolish vacant houses and abandon unneeded streets and utilities in the target area, which is west of Jacobs Road in the city’s Sharonline section.
The $431,550 project, known as the Eastside Decommission Project, seeks $323,500 in Clean Ohio green space conservation grant funds from the Ohio Public Works Commission, and the city would supply the remainder as an in-kind match to the grant.
The land banks of the city and Mahoning County would supply 100 parcels totaling more than 24 acres, which they already control, as the in-kind match to the state money.
Although it is unprecedented here, the project is consistent with downsizing the city, as envisioned in the Youngstown 2010 plan in response to decades of population losses.
“The idea, when we started developing this back in the late ’90s, was never that we would be complete by the year 2010, but that we needed to look at it in terms of the future of the city,” said Jay Williams, former mayor and former community development director here. “So this type of application, this type of process, is exactly what was being discussed, and it takes years to actually implement.
“Generally speaking, this was the whole idea of Youngstown 2010” as it pertained to the “physical construct of the city,” Williams added.
“It’s a long time coming, and the city of Youngstown was heralded for its acknowledgement of the fact that a smaller city doesn’t mean an inferior city,” Williams said of the Youngstown 2010 effort, which drew national and international attention.
“Whatever I can do to support Mayor [John A.] McNally, the current administration and city council to continue to have these thoughts and to implement these things that are for the good of the city and the good of the Valley, I certainly hope to be able to do that,” Williams said.
President Barack Obama’s nomination of Williams to head the U.S. Economic Development Administration awaits Senate confirmation.
The proposed East Side project would consist of demolition of nine vacant, abandoned residences; acquisition by the city of 900 land parcels with 93 owners; and shutoff of unnecessary water, sewer, gas, electric, telephone and cable TV utilities.
By abandoning the unnecessary streets, the city would save money by having fewer miles of streets to salt, plow, maintain and police, said William A. D’Avignon, the city’s community development and planning director.
Reducing the number and length of available streets would provide less motor-vehicle access for illegal dumping, which plagues the area, he added.
“We are constantly having to send the street department out there to clean stuff up, like tires and building materials” that have been dumped, D’Avignon said.
By closing and disconnecting unnecessary sewer footage, the city could reduce the amount of rainwater from those lines that burdens the city’s sewage- treatment plant, he added.
The unneeded underground utilities likely will be disconnected and left in place, but unneeded overhead wires will likely be removed, D’Avignon said.
The land needed for the decommissioning project would be donated or purchased, or it would be acquired through Mahoning County Land Bank foreclosures on tax-delinquent lots.
“It’s a unique project. A lot of open-space preservation projects deal with acquiring property that might be under pressure for development. This project is kind of the reverse of that,” D’Avignon said.
“It also has a lot of moving parts as far as assembling a whole bunch of parcels of land and the decommissioning of infrastructure,” he added.
The county land bank has agreed to foreclose on 525 real estate tax-delinquent lots at $250 per lot over 12 to 18 months and deliver a clear title for this project, according to a pre-application filed by the city for the state grant.
The grant application is due March 6.
The city’s East Side was planned as a place that would accommodate future urban growth, the city said in its pre-application.
During the 1920s, streets were laid out and residential lots, many of them 25 by 100 feet, were sold to individuals, and the infrastructure improvements were installed.
“The collapse of the strong steel economy and subsequent depopulation” slowed development, however, and few houses were built in the decommissioning project area, the city explained in its pre-application.
The city’s total population peaked at 170,000 in 1930 and is now about 65,000.
“Had the city been fully developed, it could have accommodated upward of a quarter of a million people,” Williams said.
The 90-acre decommissioning area is in a northeastern section of the city known as Sharonline, which is named for a Youngstown-to-Sharon, Pa., streetcar line that ran along Jacobs Road between 1900 and 1939.
The 90-acre area, which includes parts of Vaughn, Josephine, Shaw and Miltonia avenues, abuts the city limits along the Mahoning-Trumbull county boundary.
D’Avignon said the grant application requires the city to promise that the 90 acres will remain forever in their natural state. If the land is ever developed, the city must return the grant money to the state, he said.
D’Avignon said he thinks future development of that land is unlikely, however, especially following abandonment of the state’s plans for the Hubbard Expressway that would have run through the East Side, connecting the Himrod Expressway to Interstate 80.
Today, only one structure in the 90-acre area is inhabited, and that is a 988-square-foot single-family home on a 25-by-115-foot lot.
D’Avignon said the city would not use eminent domain to acquire any properties and force anyone out, but it would offer financial assistance to relocate any residents of the area if they want to move.
The city has no plans to turn the decommissioned acres into a park because the East Side’s population density is too low for use of another park and because the city’s Johnson Park, formerly known as Bailey Park, is nearby, D’Avignon said.
The project area was the subject of a 2009 study titled “Developing Methods to Establish an Urban Wetland Mitigation Bank on Youngstown’s East Side,” which was funded by the city and completed by Youngstown State University’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies.
The study found that the area contains several acres of wetlands.
In its pre-application for the grant, the city says the proposed project “presents an opportunity to preserve an ecologically sensitive area.”
“The [wet] soil conditions in that area are really unsuited to development, but are suited to being naturalized,” said Hunter Morrison, executive director of the Akron-based Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium.
“It’s a good idea [to let the 90 acres go back to nature] because it takes an area that has been deteriorating over a long period of time and puts it to a useful long-term purpose in terms of an open space,” said Morrison, who helped develop the Youngstown 2010 plan.
“This is really an example of repositioning assets” in the city, he observed.
“Other communities that have confronted this issue, such as Detroit, have been looking at this on a much larger scale,” he noted.
“It’s an unused space, and it can be beautified. The vacant houses should have been demolished years ago,” said Warren Harrell, a founder and former president of the Northeast Homeowners and Concerned Citizens Organization on the city’s East Side.
“I would rather see green space than houses that are abandoned. ... We’re much better off with green space,” he added.