Downtown Youngstown Plans For A Plan…Now How About A Planner?

Last week , it was announced at a Youngstown City Council Community Development Agency committee meeting that the city will be working toward securing funds for a downtown and main city corridor plan.

The funding is being spearheaded by SC2 Washington D.C. Fellow Scott Smith whose mission, in part, is to help actualize a number of the recommendations listed in Youngstown’s recent 251-page, $250k efficiency study.

In Scott’s view, this plan (along with an economic strength assessment study) will serve as an important component for the city moving forward.

It was 8 years ago that the city unveiled its award winning city-wide plan, Youngstown 2010, to nearly 1,300 people at Stambaugh Auditorium.

The process was a long and through one (nearly 3 years).

At the time, the notion of a new vision for Youngstown created a type of hope and energy in the community that it hadn’t felt for nearly 25 years prior (to include myself, who chose to move back to Youngstown after military service having been inspired by what I was reading in the local newspaper).

What was unique about 2010 was it was the first plan adopted by an American city that acknowledged that it was shrinking…and needed to plan accordingly.

The plan itself, however, was mostly an overarching vision that spoke about general key priorities. Its actual mission (should the city had chose to accept it) was to take that new vision and break it down on the neighborhood level.

And this began to happen in several neighborhoods…the most notable being Idora which recieved a full plan that was adopted by the city and is now the beneficiary of some very well recognized development work today as a result.

But the planning ended in 2009 when Chief Planner Anthony Kobak resigned and the position was never filled.

However, absent planning, here’s what else has been going on in the 8 years since the plan was completed:

  • A 100+ percent rise in neighborhood groups city-wide.
  • A highcapacity, multi-faced community development corporation (YNDC) doing nationally recognized neighborhood work.
  • The establishment of a county land bank.
  • A new zoning code that is just as progressive as the 2010 plan itself.
  • An overhaul of the city’s housing inspection and demolition process.
  • A downtown that is growing – albeit piecemeal – despite one of the worst recessions in U.S. history.

Of course, there’s other serious issues the city continues to contend with as well:

  • 18% more population loss since 2000 (60% overall since the 1930s).
  • A foreclosure epidemic (5,100 since 2004…in a city of 66,000K).
  • Crime that is considerably higher than cities of comparable size.
  • A public school system in academic distress and on the brink of financial collapse (which, obviously, has contributed greatly to all of the above issues).

Of course, some of these things are beyond what Youngstown – or any city government – are responsible for or can address by itself.

Regardless, the city has been managing through all of this (good and bad) without planning of any kind.

That’s right: a city known for a plan has been without any planning for a majority of the time since said plan was launched.

Here’s how someone much wiser and articulate has explained the need for planning in older industrial cities:

Planners who themselves see possibilities in planning after decline can give residents (and officials) the facts. They can communicate the scale and extent of the transition taking place in neighborhoods and open a dialogue that enables residents and civic leaders to discuss the reality success from size to quality. Planners can use (their tools) to identify the patterns of decline and growth in their cities and focus limited public dollars on interventions that directly address quality of life by reducing crime and blight, improving mobility and the perception of safety,and identifying economic development projects—such as neighborhood grocery stores—that the smaller market can still support. And they can assume the role of “practical visionary” and help city leaders and residents to imagine an achievable future as a smaller but more sustainable city. (They are able) to show residents and city officials the city’s current conditions and help them illustrate what new ideas would mean in neighborhood changes (from the book Rebuilding Legacy Cities; read more of this chapter here).”

So, while a downtown and corridor plan is welcome and much needed, what is equally needed is planning capacity restored at large. Because the lack of it leaves an ad hock and disjointed community effort to fill in the gaps and keep momentum going and hope alive.

To its credit, the city has stated that they are reserving funds in this year’s budget to resume planning. Mayoral candidates are including it in their platform talking points.

That’s good because as the saying goes: failing to plan is planning to fail.

Phil Kidd is the founder of Defend Youngstown as well as the Youngstown Nation Gift Shop & Information Center in downtown Youngstown. He also keeps a personal blog (In Defense) which discusses local issues in the Youngstown area.

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