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On the Waterfront: The Possible Future of Youngstown's Riverfront

For many legacy cities in the former Industrial Heartland of America, waterfronts were never much more than alien spaces. Cargo shipping, steel mills, chemical companies, and other industrial concerns ruled rivers and lakefronts. Manufacturing enterprises even rendered waterways into toxic dumping grounds in the decades before the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Water Act. This is especially true of the former steel city of Youngstown, Ohio.

For most of the twentieth century, miles of massive steel mills covered both banks of the Mahoning River, which snakes through the city of Youngstown. The city’s highly developed downtown was surrounded by the maw of local industry for nearly 80 years. By the 1980s, most of the mills had been silenced and the area around the Market Street Bridge—the main gateway to the downtown—was well on its way to becoming deindustrialized. Wean United, one of the last standing large industrial facilities near the bridge, closed in 1982. The Wean complex continued to operate as an industrial space for a variety of companies until its complete abandonment in 2011.

The former Wean facility is now a 300,000 square foot brownfield site sitting next to what is presumably prime real estate on the Mahoning River. The city had been attempting to find new tenants for the building; however recent negotiations with two companies fell through. If the city does not find a tenant for the site, the building itself will come down—opening up the waterfront to a newly revitalized downtown. Youngstown recently received $1,775,418 of Clean Ohio funds for environmental remediation of the site. It’s estimated the clean up will take at least six months, and the funds themselves must be used by December of 2014.

Youngstown officials have indicated the site is to initially become a parking lot. The entire idea of a parking lot represents a shameful lack of imagination. Another prime site, the vacant hole on West Federal Street that once housed the State Theater, is also slated to become a parking lot. This begs the question: What are some REAL uses for the newly opened riverfront?

Water bodies are prime physical assets for cities. In a report entitled Restoring Prosperity to Ohio’s Cities, the Brookings Institute called for creating statewide “Walkable Waterfronts” initiatives in Ohio. The report mentions Youngstown specifically. Of course various waterfront development efforts are either in the planning stages, or are already underway, in a wide variety of legacy cities from Trenton to Toledo. If at all feasible, creative uses for recreation and economic development should be considered for the downtown riverfront. In fact the nearby city of Warren has already set an example for what could be done in Youngtown.

Warren’s Riverwalk project set out to remake the waterfront adjacent to the downtown. The project has already opened up the river area and connected it to the courthouse, which is a high traffic center in the downtown. At the corner of West Market and Mahoning Avenue are a veteran’s memorial and a log cabin, built where the first schoolhouse in Warren once stood. The city installed the Perkins Park amphitheater right below the monument, which now hosts seasonal concert events under the name “River Rock at the Amp.” A pedestrian-bicycle path was installed in the late 1990s. The Riverwalk skirts the Mahoning as it leads through Perkins Park and eventually leads to Packard Park. The entire area has become a showcase for the city of Warren

There has been some riverfront development in Youngstown. On the lower west side at the edge of downtown on the water is the B&O Station Boxcar Lounge and the Rust Belt Brewery. The B&O hosts a number of events throughout the season, including Artists of the Rust Belt, which features local work, and the B&O Night Market—that serves as a place for vendors to sell produce, baked goods, and other edibles.

To the east of the Wean site is the Covelli Center (formerly the Chevrolet Center.) Built on the site of a demolished steel mill in 2005, the center attracts a number of high profile events per year. Additional parking could indeed accommodate any overflow from Covelli, but there are a number of better ideas for the Wean site.

This year, the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation brought in a group of design students from the Technical University of Dortmund in Germany to propose possible new uses for a number of vacant sites in the city, Wean being one of them. The proposals included an indoor sports facility (probably cost prohibitive) and an outdoor skate park/BMX area. Skateboarding in particular is very popular in Youngstown, and there are no skate parks within the city limits.

Another student proposal is to build an industrial heritage park. When the city finally began to address the future of the Wean site, the term “eye sore” became common whenever referring to the complex. Local industrial historian Rick Rowlands questioned the term and appropriately referenced the site’s “unique place in industrial history.” At the very least an historical marker and some information about the history of the William Tod Company (the first company at the site) and Wean United would be in order.

Youngstown’s waterfront could be designed as a hike/bike trail, as the city mentions in Youngstown 2010 Plan: “Mill Creek MetroParks operates a trail west of Youngstown that runs from Green Township in southern Mahoning County to the Trumbull County line, where it continues in various states of development along an abandoned rail line to Ashtabula. The Stavich bike trail begins southeast of Youngstown and runs from Struthers to New Castle links to trail connections to Washington. The missing link between these trails is through Youngstown.” The 2010 plan alluded to connecting Mill Creek Park to Spring Commons (AKA Mr. Peanut Bridge.) This could be further linked to the Wean site by a hike/bike trail, making the downtown much more amenable to recreation, as well as significantly greening a currently blighted area.

However, activities close to, but not too near the water, seem to be the most sensible option, for one very good reason.

The steel industry’s ugly legacy of environmental destruction is still present in the Mahoning River. While the mills operated the river never froze, even during the coldest winters. A wide variety of heavy metals are still present in the contaminated riverbed. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, right up until the late 1970s hundreds of thousands of pounds of oils, grease, and even zinc were routinely dumped EVERY day into the Mahoning. Sediment in the river is contaminated with carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are also carcinogenic and have been linked to physiological abnormalities in animals and humans.

The Army Corps recommends the dredging of 750,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the riverbed and from the shoreline. To put those numbers in perspective, that’s a mound of sediment one yard wide by one yard high that would stretch roughly from Youngstown to New York City. The estimated cost of such a project approaches at least $150 million, if not substantially more. The Ohio Department of Health issued contact bans in the late 1980s, advising people not to come into contact with the water, nor to eat any fish from the river. Any activities involving direct contact with the water or with shoreline sediment should not be part of any future development plans.

Last but not least, both sides of the Mahoning riverfront are sites of homeless camps large and small. Immediate consideration needs to be given to relocating these individuals to safe housing. Across the river from Wean, the bottling house for the old Renner Brewery is still standing. It needs to be demolished and the persons living in it humanely relocated as well.

Brownfield waterfront development is a complicated endeavor under any circumstance. Downtown Youngstown’s plan should encompass some form of riverfront development besides just surface parking. Community input, environmental considerations, and safe recreational designs should be part of any plan for the riverfront that survives the planning stages; this is a crucial piece for the future of downtown development. Unless the community lobbies for creative uses of the site, it’s assured that the city will install a parking lot, and despite what officials might say, it will likely be permanent. Let’s not allow a botched plan for the riverfront to impede the future prosperity of the downtown.

–Sean Posey

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