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Study calls Youngstown 2010 plan a ‘cautionary tale’

One of the successes of the Youngstown 2010 plan was the redevelopment of the city’s downtown. West Federal Street has several restaurants and bars in buildings that were empty 15 years ago. Staff photo / David Skolnick

YOUNGSTOWN — Youngstown 2010, a detailed plan focusing on revitalizing the city through “smart shrinkage,” received national and international attention and recognition.

But a scholarly study, published in the Journal of the American Planning Association, describes the plan as “a cautionary tale” and notes that it’s easy to talk about smart growth by embracing a shrinking city — “but harder to realize.”

The report was written by Brent D. Ryan, an associate professor of urban design and public policy in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Shugi Gao, a lecturer in the Department of Urban Planning at the School of Architecture at Southeast University in China.

“Today, 15 years after the comprehensive plan was issued, Youngstown remains a city with large numbers of vacant parcels, an anemic economy and serious social challenges,” they wrote. “The need for urban planning to engage the city’s challenges remains.”

What do they believe caused Youngstown 2010 not to be fully implemented?

“In Youngstown, the combined persistence of growth-oriented ideology, entrenched property rights, resilient historic land-use arrangements, financial limitation and political shifts limited the implementation of the city’s ambitious, nonstatutory, smart shrinkage-oriented comprehensive plan.”

FACE OF 2010

Former Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams — the face of Youngstown 2010 as the city’s Community Development Agency director when the city held 11 neighborhood meetings in 2004 to help shape the plan — said: “I don’t disagree with the conclusions” of the study.

When asked if Youngstown 2010 was a success, a failure or something in between, Williams said: “It is to a certain extent all of the above.”

Williams, now the president and CEO of the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving in Connecticut, rode the Youngstown 2010 plan into a 2005 election as the city’s first black mayor and the first independent elected to the position in more than 80 years.

Williams said of the plan: “One of the important things is that it changed the narrative in Youngstown and about Youngstown. The narrative leading up to Youngstown 2010 was the collapse of the steel industry, political corruption and organized crime. It’s still part of our history, but the plan changed the narrative on a local, national and international level.”

The plan, he said, “planted the seeds on downtown development. The Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. had its origins in it, and it emerged as a powerful force in the neighborhoods. It should be considered a success.

“There are some shortcomings. There are difficulties and challenges. I agree with the conclusion. But if I had to choose, the successes outweighed the shortcomings.”

BROAD STROKES

The Ryan and Gao study states, “Today, the city’s landscape resembles that of other deindustrialized U.S. cities with a high-rise, highly vacant downtown ringed by parking lots and vacant land.”

However, the city’s downtown has changed significantly since the 2010 plan was adopted 15 years ago. While there are plenty of parking lots, several vacant buildings in early 2005 are now developed and occupied by restaurants, bars and higher-end apartments and condominiums, including Realty Tower Apartments and Erie Terminal Place Apartments. Also, the Stambaugh Building, which was largely vacant years ago, is the location of the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel and the Covelli Centre and Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre have been built.

The Youngstown 2010 plan, adopted in 2005, was selected in 2007 by the American Planning Association as the winner of its National Planning Excellence Award for Outreach. That same year, The New York Times Magazine praised the plan as one of the 74 best ideas in a variety of topics. The plan won the Outstanding Community Planning honor from the Ohio chapter of the APA in 2005 and was featured in national and foreign publications.

It was the first city that saw a steep population decline — from 166,689 in 1960 to 66,982 in 2010 — to state it “was a smaller city that would likely become even smaller in the expected future,” according to the study from Ryan and Gao.

But Ryan and Gao also wrote: “The comprehensive plan’s specificity and sincerity seem wasted in the face of the plan’s limited implementation. The plan does not seem to have been publicized or understood as a strategic plan — a plan that is comparatively unspecific in its goals but aspirational and inspirational in its broad strokes — but perhaps such a strategic plan might have served Youngstown’s needs better, rather than a highly-specific land-use plan whose specificities proved to be pragmatically unrealizable.”

OUTCOMES

Bill D’Avignon –the city’s deputy director of planning during the 2010 plan and later its community development and planning director — said: “We accomplished quite a few of the desired outcomes of the 2010 plan.”

He points to the 2013 redevelopment code, the “idea of building neighborhoods and prioritizing demolition,” the “creation of neighborhood groups to keep the citizens involved,” and developing sites for future use and rezoning areas for industrial purposes as achievements.

“The idea of doing more with less was the main takeaway of the Youngstown 2010 plan,” he said. “Take what we do right and build upon it. Building a central downtown core was a goal of the 2010 plan.”

The Ryan and Gao study said the redevelopment code only rezoned 2.6 percent of the city’s parcels, leaving the rest unchanged.

D’Avignon said the city made progress toward achieving some of the plan’s goals when Williams was mayor, but were derailed when Charles Sammarone replaced him in August 2011 after Williams resigned to take a job in the President Barack Obama administration.

“Sammarone said, ‘It’s not 2010 anymore, and I don’t want to hear you say it,'” D’Avignon said.

When Sammarone was mayor, he acknowledged he didn’t have a copy of the plan in his office and didn’t think much of it.

Mentioned in the study is that “Williams’ departure removed a key advocate.”

The study states Sammarone “had little political capital to gain from, and thus little motivation to implement, his predecessor’s comprehensive plan, both because of the aforementioned legal concerns and because of fear of provoking resident discomfort. Informants noted that the city council, mirroring the new mayor’s concerns, adopted a cautious approach to the 2013 code’s formulation intended to minimize potential challenges, both legal and civic.”

The study points out: “Youngstown is not alone in struggling to realize land-use planning objectives through conformance of a comprehensive plan with subsequent measures. Other scholars also find land-use planning implementation to only partially conform, at best, with plan objectives.”

dskolnick@tribtoday.com

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