×

Former St. Joseph Riverside has been empty since the late ’90s

Former St. Joseph Riverside has been empty since the late ’90s

WARREN — One of Trumbull County’s most problematic hospital closures wasn’t because the hospital was put out of commission, but because it moved.

The former St. Joseph Riverside Hospital on Tod Avenue, unaffectionately labeled the “Nightmare on Tod Avenue” by the city officials who have wanted to demolish the now-vandalized, dilapidated building for years, was left empty when a company that purchased the property failed to follow through on plans to turn the facility into a nursing home.

Mostly unused since the emergency room closed in June 1996, the empty building is now home to empty beer cans, broken glass, jagged remains of the pipes cut away for scrap, graphic graffiti, animals and vagrants.

The hulking building sits in a residential neighborhood and is next to active facilities, some so close the employees park under the boarded up windows — including a Mercy Health outpatient clinic, a Veterans Affairs clinic and even a domestic violence shelter for women and children.

The facility closed when St. Joseph Riverside merged with Warren General Hospital, after Humility of Mary Health Care (now Mercy Health) acquired the Eastland Avenue facility — and moved all operations to the city’s east side.

Parts of the Tod Avenue complex were originally kept open with an urgent care center with some outpatient services. The owners first sought tenants before selling it, according to Tribune Chronicle archives.

The hospitals in the area were contracting and consolidating, adapting to a community with fewer people.

The trend isn’t special to the Mahoning Valley.

POPULATION LOSS

“It is a big challenge for the country on a macro level,” said Scot Latimer, a global health and wellness health care strategist for Gensler, a global planning and consulting firm.

Hospitals outside big cities in the north and east are closing or consolidating as populations dwindle and the need for types of care change, Latimer said.

Warren’s population declined from a peak of 63,494 in 1970 to 50,793 in 1990, down to 41,558 in 2010, according to U.S. Census data. Youngstown saw a similar decline, though the high in population was in 1930 at 170,000, by 1970 there were 139,788 people in the city, which declined to 95,787 in 1990 and down to 66,982 in 2010.

When looking to repurpose hospitals, few models work in different types of communities, said Latimer, who works with health care providers as they plan facility changes.

“I’ve seen a number of old hospitals repurposed for housing,” Latimer said.

Some of the former hospitals have been developed into expensive condos or into a senior community in more rural areas, depending upon what the market can support, Latimer said.

He has also helped hospitals downsize their space. A converted hospital can be a great campus for community-based living with room for housing and shared spaces, and even for small businesses like coffee shops or a pharmacy. Plus plenty of parking is always available.

In places like Ohio that are hard hit by the opioid crisis, former hospitals can also work for the community by transitioning into recovery centers that offer a myriad of services, Latimer said.

CHALLENGES

Although there were many hopes for the former St. Joseph Riverside Hospital, now people can only hope for money to tear it down. The cost for that is estimated between $4 million and $8 million, including asbestos removal.

“It is a decent piece of property and it probably can be repurposed (once the building is demolished). Back in that time, you put your health care facilities right in the midst of where the people were,” said Greg Hicks, Warren’s law director from 1992 through 2019, standing outside of the building this month. “It was close to the community and easy to get to. But unfortunately, when they walked away from it, this what you have left behind.”

About 150 people attended a rally calling for the building to razed in August, including Bryana Williams, a caseworker at the domestic violence shelter, who described the complex as “unsafe” for both employees and clients.

Inside, open shafts pose a fall risk, and black mold and standing water can be seen. A foul odor wafts from the abandoned complex in the summer, residents said.

Matt Martin, executive director of Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership, a nonprofit community development corporation that works to create opportunities for home ownership and end blight, said while he has plenty of funding to tear down vacant and dilapidated residential homes, he is not allowed to use the funding to tear down commercial structures.

The complex at 1307 Tod Ave. NW changed hands a few times, and has been decreasing in value since a high of about $14 million in the 1980s, to its current assessed value of $200,000.

The property was acquired in 2010 by Florida-based Euro-American Finance Network Inc. for $200,000. Before that, it was held by Fairview Commercial Lending Inc., a Georgia corporation that paid $600,000 to Ohio-based PKAM LLC in 2003. PKAM acquired the property from Riverside Square of Warren Inc. in 1997, but information about the amount of the sale was not available on the Trumbull County Auditor’s online tool.

Because of extensive unpaid taxes in 2014 — $156,000 — foreclosure proceedings were started, and attempts were made to seize assets. After no one purchased the parcel in 2019 during two sheriff’s sales, the state took possession of the property — which now has $186,000 in unpaid taxes, according to Trumbull County Auditor records.

Hicks said the city never took control of the property itself, though it wanted to have the building torn down. Demolition funds weren’t available and the city didn’t want to be held liable as owners of the property.

While the hospital system that owned the property did sell it, Martin said he believes there should be some type of commitment to the community and responsibility to take care of the hospital’s remaining shell.

“I do understand that legally the property is no longer in the Mercy Health system. It was sold decades ago, and there is no legal responsibility,” Martin said. “I don’t necessarily think that the former owner should pay for the demolition in its entirety, or even partially, but at the very least, rhetorically, I do believe that there is some responsibility to help participate in this solution. From my understanding, and from the records that I’ve seen, there was a sale made that was essentially pennies on the dollar… So I can’t say if it was responsible or irresponsible. But what I can say is, what resulted has been horrific.”

With the former hospital in the state’s possession, it can be easily transferred to Martin’s organization, he said.

Once a funding source has been identified to take care of the demolition costs — local officials are pressuring the area’s state legislative delegation to find dollars in the 2020 capital spending bill — TNP can take ownership of the building and tear it down, Martin said.

THE FUTURE

But Martin is worried about future “nightmare” commercial buildings.

He wants to see the city, Trumbull County or the state implement commercial vacant property bonds that would require the owners of a building to put aside money for the demolition of a commercial property if it sits unused.

“There is, in other communities, a commercial vacancy bond, where in order to vacate a commercial property — in other words to continue to own it — the owner would have to put up a bond with the city and that bond amount should cover the cost of demolition, and some greening and restoration,” Martin said. “The cities hold those bonds and utilize them so the city has the money to tear it down without the taxpayer expense.”

Hicks echoed Martin’s call for some type of commercial bond or insurance policy to avoid situations like this in the future.

It is too late for the former St. Joseph Riverside Hospital, Martin said.

But the idea could help with vacant facilities that might spring up as time goes on, Martin said.

And now that Mercy Health is considering developing a new hospital in Niles, Martin wonders what will happen to the now-active hospital on Eastland Avenue SE.

“When Riverside on Tod was closed, they moved to Eastland and now it seems that they are contemplating moving to the mall area in Niles,” Martin said, questioning whether there are “any mechanisms to guarantee that the building isn’t left in the same way?”

Though Mercy Health has said they would continue some operations at the Eastland facility, and haven’t committed to moving yet, the story sounds too similar to what happened on Tod Avenue, Martin said.

“I have a great concern that the current S. Joe’s could become just like the old St. Joe’s and I think I’m not alone in that concern there,” Martin said.

Martin said he hopes city officials are considering working with Mercy Health to prevent the same thing from happening, especially considering the age and issues with the facility on Eastland.

Hicks said he would like to see the city insist on a plan for the Eastland facility that includes a contingency if it is vacated, before the city agrees to any incentives or utility agreements for the potential move.

“We don’t want to repeat the same mistakes over and over again,” Martin said.

NEWSLETTER

Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)