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YWCA renovation nears completion

By Emmalee C. Torisk | Metro Monthly Staff Writer

One century ago, after raising $150,000, several members of the city’s most prominent families established a permanent space for the fledgling YWCA of Youngstown: a five-story brick structure on West Rayen Avenue. Constructed in 1911 and dedicated one year later, the building has since been central to the organization’s programs and services. However, in recent years, the structure has often hindered, rather than helped, efficient fulfillment of the YWCA’s mission.

“The women of the community needed a place for women and families. [The YWCA has] been many things for many people and has seen many uses throughout the years,” said Leah Brooks, development director of the YWCA. “It’s a symbol of women’s history, of the women leaders of our community. But it was in need of a facelift.”

Subsequently, in August, the YWCA of Youngstown began an ambitious $10 million renovation and restoration of the historic building that has functioned, at various times in the past 100 years, as a homeless shelter, a place of worship and a center for childcare, education, health and recreation, social activities and women affected by crisis.

The YWCA Board of Directors began planning the project in 1996 after a feasibility study determined renovation of the existing structure more economical than demolition and new construction. Eight years later, the board recommitted to that idea and started searching for an architectural firm to present a visual plan of the renovation. The board chose local architect Paul Ricciuti, primarily for his experience with preserving and adaptively reusing historic buildings.

“[The structure] is very, very sound,” Ricciuti said. “It’s part of the fabric of Youngstown. We’ve torn down too many historic buildings in our community. It’s a major, major plus for our community that the board decided to stay there.”

Approximately $9 million has been committed to the project. In 2007, the YWCA received $3.2 million from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency in low-income housing tax credits to renovate a portion of the structure, said Constance Shaffer, executive director of the YWCA. She noted that this award was followed by $1.4 million in historic preservation tax credits, $1 million in state historic preservation tax credits, $1 million from the Federal Home Loan Bank, $750,000 from the Ohio Housing Trust Fund, $700,000 from a Clean Ohio grant and $400,000 from the city of Youngstown. The project has also received assistance from the YWCA’s capital campaign and is seeking further community support and donations.

“It’s all been tough,” Shaffer said of financing the project. “It’s never a sure thing. Government grants and the stimulus made the project possible. [We had] the majority of money coming through that way.”

Despite some funding struggles and the project’s inherent risks and challenges, Shaffer stressed the need for up-to-date permanent supportive housing, primarily for those who require “help in maintaining homes.”

“It was not a great environment,” Shaffer said of the building before the project’s start. “It was too hot, too cold, there were things breaking. It was not very modern.”

To better meet the contemporary needs of YWCA residents, the structure’s 36 dormitory-style single bedrooms — which featured common bathrooms, living rooms and kitchens — have been transformed into 30 handicapped-accessible one-bedroom and efficiency apartments for low-income single women. Each unit provides a private bathroom and kitchen facility and ranges in size from 450 to 700 square feet, Brooks said.

“Privacy is important. It’s hard enough for students to live like that, let alone grown women,” Brooks said of the previous housing conditions. “[The new apartments] are cozy; they feel like more of a home.”

All apartments feature several amenities, including a refrigerator, a stove, a phone, Internet, cable, plenty of storage space, heat and air conditioning. Prior to the renovation, residents relied on shared air-conditioning units installed in each floor’s community lounge and one thermostat that controlled temperature settings for the entire building. Now, residents can adjust rooms to their personal comfort levels.

The updated residential space spreads across the top three floors and a portion of the second. Construction should be complete by September or October, while all 30 apartments will likely be rented and leased by December, Brooks said. Licensed social workers will provide on-site supportive services for residents.

This comprehensive effort also includes restoration of the structure’s original two-story gymnasium, which will be used as a community all-purpose room. Areas adjacent to the gymnasium have been designated as small group meeting rooms, restrooms and a kitchen. The YWCA’s health outreach staff will be housed there, but building residents, YWCA program participants and the public are encouraged to use the space, Brooks said.

The public will also be welcomed into the YWCA’s first-floor lobby, which is being restored to its 1911 appearance. Historic elements of the structure were preserved, following state and federal historic preservation standards. What could not be preserved or was otherwise unavailable had to be replicated.

Layers of paint have been stripped from the original woodwork and fireplaces, while multi-pane windows have been installed for historical accuracy, Brooks said. The lobby will also feature a cyber cafe, complete with Wi-Fi, and a limited food service operation.

“[The lobby] will be for public use, a public area. We’ve had public programs, but this will bring more of a traffic [to the building],” Brooks said.

First-floor space will also be used for retail operations, start-up space for women- and minority-owned businesses, case-management support for clients and partnerships with local government, businesses and training programs.

The former pool building, which stood between the YWCA and the new Williamson College of Business Administration, has been demolished. An enclosed garden will take its place.

Plans are also in place to further develop the YWCA’s childcare center. A new children’s center will feature an outdoor playground, developmental assessments, therapy and specialized services for children with disabilities. These services target children aged 6 weeks to 12 years, including those with special needs.

Other additions and improvements include activity rooms, a fitness area and computer labs. More efficient and economical operating systems, such as new wiring and plumbing, were installed.

“We’re gutting out the old and putting in new,” Brooks said. “It creates a healthier environment for staff, residents and the public. When people come in here, even members of our own board, they’re amazed.”

Prior to the project’s start, Brooks recalled questioning the YWCA’s downtown location.

“Do we belong here? Do we belong in the suburbs?” Brooks asked. “But we have a value here, a value downtown. We’re very much involved with community revitalization and the renaissance of the community. The community response to this transition, this transformation, has been very positive.”

© 2010, The Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.


YSU construction projects alter skyline

By Mark C. Peyko | Metro Monthly Editor

Construction projects in and around Youngstown State University are expanding the physical reach of the campus and altering the skyline of the downtown and near North Side.

In late summer, students returning to classes saw scaffolding, steel framing and earth-moving equipment on sites north and south of the campus core. Although YSU’s new $34.3 million Williamson College of Business Administration building on West Rayen Avenue is the centerpiece of the university’s Centennial Master Plan, multi-million dollar restorations at St. Columba Cathedral and the YWCA bookend the project and are the most extensive in each facility’s history.

“One of the underlying land-development concepts is to reach out and connect the campus to the rest of the community,” said Hunter Morrison, director of campus planning and community partnerships at YSU. “That was particularly true in the case of the business school – moving into what was known as the transition zone between downtown and the campus in collaboration with the Diocese of Youngstown and the YWCA.”

The new Williamson College of Business Administration replaces an aging structure on Lincoln Avenue. The 106,000-square-foot facility doubles the size of the current building and adds features not found in the 1960s-era structure. New classroom space will facilitate interactive learning and the building will house a student-run business incubator and labs for computers, financial services, sales and communications. Williamson is expected to open in June 2010 and is the largest single capital expenditure in Youngstown State University’s history.

Last October the YWCA of Youngstown kicked off  the renovation/restoration of its historic 1911 building on Rayen Avenue. The $8.6 million project calls for adapting the YWCA to present-day needs, while maintaining the building’s historic ambience. A key component of the project calls for creating 30 one bedroom and efficiency apartments for residents. The renovation will transform current dormitory-style housing into modern, self-contained apartment units with private bathrooms and kitchen facilities. All would be handicap accessible.

“It took a while to find all the resources to put together,” said Constance Shaffer, executive director of the YWCA. “One of the key players was Ohio Capital Corporation for Housing, and they helped us navigate the system to secure low-income tax credits and helped put together the project with funding sources.”

The YWCA project seeks to create job development and “economic empowerment” programming on the first floor. Plans call for a variety of economic development ventures, including a start-up space for women’s and minority-owned businesses and partnerships with local government and job-training organizations. Other improvements include new community meeting spaces, computer labs, a fitness area, and a cyber café in the first-floor lobby. The former pool building is scheduled for demolition and a new enclosed garden is planned in its place.

The total cost of the YWCA project is $8,682,498. The YWCA plans to use a combination of grant monies, low-income housing tax credits and federal historic tax credits to complete the project, but is undertaking a capital campaign to raise the remaining $3,047,926.
To contribute to the project, contact Shaffer or Leah Brooks, development director, at 330-746-6361.

West of the future Williamson College of Business Administration, the Diocese of Youngstown is undertaking a $2 million restoration of St. Columba Cathedral. The work is part of the Diocese’s “Today’s Sacrifice, Tomorrow’s Church Capital Campaign.” The drive, which ended in January 2006, earmarked $22.5 million for a variety of uses, including school and ministry endowments, seminarian support, and restoration of the cathedral. LZ Construction is construction manager for the project. According to the Louis A. Zarlenga & Associates and LZ Construction Web site, the first phase of the project is set to be completed in November 2009.

North of campus and across from the Cafaro House residence hall on Elm Street, U.S. Campus Suites LLC recently demolished the former Electrochemicals Inc. complex, which in recent years had housed a coney island restaurant, car wash, coffee shop and thrift store. U.S. Campus Suites President Dominic Marchionda plans to build a 115 bed student apartment building in the block bounded by Elm, Bryson, Madison Avenue and the West Bound Service Road of the Madison Avenue Expressway. Last spring, the YSU Board of Trustees agreed to lease the parcel for 40 years to U.S. Campus Suites for $110,000.  At the end of the lease, the university will gain control of the building.

The proposed development, called the Flats at Wick, is the first phase of a planned four apartment building complex on the site. Rent is expected to be $685 per month for a one-room apartment and $510 per person for a four-bed apartment.

Farther north on Elm Street, Common Wealth, Inc., a non-profit organization, purchased 901 Elm on July 17. According to the Mahoning County Auditor’s Web site, the organization purchased the 5,698-square-foot building from the U.S. Government at auction for an undisclosed price. The two-story brick building formerly housed the Penguin Pub and Amy’s Campus 2000. Constructed in 1929, the Stuart Building contains six one-bedroom apartments and first floor commercial space. Common Wealth is asking between $550 and $700 for a one-bedroom apartment and is marketing to students, hospital employees or anyone else wishing to live on the North Side. The apartments feature hardwood floors, new kitchens and baths and off-street parking.

Two other projects, still in the preliminary stages, include a new CVS drug store on Fifth Avenue and an indoor athletic training facility on Elm Street north of the YSU Physical Plant. The proposed Watson and Tressel Training Site, was announced in 2007, following a $1 million donation by the Watson and Tressel families. Like Williamson, the $10 million project is part of YSU’s $43 million Centennial Capital Campaign. According to the YSU athletics department Web site (http://www.ysusports.com), the $7.5 million first phase of the complex is expected to be complete for the fall 2010 semester.

The enclosed, climate-protected practice facility will be used for YSU football and athletic training as well as area high school teams and youth organizations. The facility will include athletic fields for football, baseball, softball, soccer and track. A video, hosted on YouTube, shows a short, computer-generated video on the proposed facility. To view, visithttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNmsurl4NAE.

For more information on the WATTS project or to donate to the project, contact Joe Casesse at 330-941-2756.

© 2009, The Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.


Student hopeful after theater-facade victory

By Jaime Hughes | Special to the Metro Monthly

As night glimmered off the old State Theatre, I couldn’t help but close my eyes and wonder what kind of people had laughed in this building. How many people came down on a Sunday afternoon looking to see movies? How many generations had crossed the skywalk over the alleyway that led to the grand theater?

Memories are what make up Youngstown. But what good are memories if there isn’t a piece of them to stay alive?
A while back, that’s what I decided to do – keep a part of Youngstown alive. It seemed unrealistic to try and save a theater that had been on a demolition list for years, but I felt compelled to save the building from the wrecking ball.

It felt like an uphill battle to protect something that had been closed for decades. Many newspaper articles published on the State Theatre called it unsafe. One paper reported that a man who had entered the building sustained injuries due to unsteady floors and missing railings.

But my endeavor to save the State Theatre led me to meet politicians, students, artists, professors and even a man who would not survive – but who had pushed us and believed in us from the beginning even when no one else did.

I stood to make my case in a small, packed café in front of people all much more older than me – all with degrees and full of skepticism. How could an 18-year-old Cardinal Mooney senior and her 20-year-old YSU partner save a building that would cost a considerable amount of money to renovate?

As I stood in that café in front of reporters, the media, and concerned citizens, I felt as if I were looking into the eyes of a firing squad. That meeting was a blur until the late Bob Fitzer stood up, and I will never forget what he said to that crowd that night: “These kids are full of ridiculous ideas, but if it isn’t for kids like them and ideas like theirs, we would not have the passion and determination we have today. We are standing in a building that I saved [the Cedars]. They may not be able to save this building [the State], but they sure as hell can put up a fight and save the most valuable part – the facade.”

Those words gave birth to the “Save the State Theatre Facade” effort. From that moment, we had vowed to save the building’s decorative facade facing West Federal Street.

A buzz of ideas and positive vibes circulated the room. What had been a firing squad just minutes before had turned into dinner with friends. Downtown Youngstown isn’t just a place you visit then never return. It’s a place where you meet new people who become familiar faces and friends.

As the night came to a close, the fight still was not over. Petitions began circulating, friends and family members began writing letters to local government on the importance of this downtown facade. Architects and Youngstown activists began speaking at national conventions and to the media on the status of the project and the significance of the facade staying intact, in its original location.

The State Theatre, which dates from 1927, has a beautiful terra cotta facade. The State was known for its arched facade and its interesting set-up – a small entrance and foyer area led to a skywalk that took theater-goers into the 2,000- seat theater.

After ending its life as a movie theater, the State became a venue for rock music, first with the Tomorrow Club and then the Agora Ballroom. In the 1970s and 80s, bands like the Ramones, who were rumored to have autographed the back wall of the theater, had played there with many other great bands. It wasn’t until 1986 that the theater closed for good, due to financial troubles. It has since sat vacant. (The State is owned by the Youngstown Central Area Community Improvement Corp.)

Some local theater groups expressed an interest in the building, but no luck. As time went on, the theater slid further and further into disrepair. It finally made its way onto a real demolition list. The site will be used by the Taft Technology Center.

But the story does not end there. Thanks to wonderful activism and a vocal community, the State facade will remain. It will now be preserved on West Federal as part of an emerging technology block. And to ensure that the facade remains intact, there is a $100,000 penalty if it is harmed during the demolition of the rear theater building.

This is why I am never ashamed to say I was born and raised and continue to fight the good fight in Youngstown, because the area is comprised of wonderful, dedicated people who have great concern for our city and it’s future – even if it is one facade at a time.

© 2008, The Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.