‘Shrinking’ the city cannot be the whole solution

Youngstown, Ohio, needed to think smaller, but the strategy has helped only to a limited extent.


Philip Langdon

New Urban Network

Starting about eight years ago, Youngstown, Ohio, once a city of fiery steel furnaces and sooty skies, decided to take a newly realistic attitude toward its dimmed economic prospects.

The mills that used to line miles of the Mahoning River had closed beginning in the late 1970s. The population had shrunk from 170,000 in 1930 to 82,000 in 2000. In working-class neighborhoods, many houses were rundown or vacant.

The American steel industry crumpled from 1977 through the 1980s, yet for many years Youngstown refused to come to grips with the city’s shrunken status. Only around 2002 did its leaders begin accepting the idea that Youngstown was not going to be as big or important as it had been during its heyday.

After extensive community discussions, in 2005 the city formally adopted the “Youngstown 2010” plan, which builds on four major principles. The first was the hardest to come to terms with, and thus worth stating in full:

Accepting that Youngstown is a smaller city.

The dramatic collapse of the steel industry led to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and a precipitous decline in population. Having lost more than half its population and almost its entire industrial base in the last 30 years, the city is now left with an oversized urban structure. (It has been described as a size 40 man wearing a size 60 suit.) There are too many abandoned properties and too many underutilized sites. Many difficult choices will have to be made as Youngstown recreates itself as a sustainable mid-sized city. A strategic program is required to rationalize and consolidate the urban infrastructure in a socially responsible and financially sustainable manner.

In declaring its willingness to accept urban shrinkage, Youngstown pioneered the path now being considered by Detroit — the largest US city to confront a decline of drastic proportions.

How well is the urban shrinkage strategy going?

City Hall optimism

The “Youngstown 2010” plan “allowed the city to move beyond 20 to 25 years of listlessness,” Jay Williams, Youngstown’s mayor for the past five years, told New Urban News.
Prior to the plan, Williams said, “There was this notion of relying on big manufacturing concerns.

There was an effort to find an identical replacement for what we had lost — one or two or three firms that would employ thousands.” With its change of outlook, Youngstown now pursues “a more diverse local economy” made up of smaller enterprises — a strategy that Williams says Entrepreneur magazine has confirmed by naming Youngstown one of the top 10 cities in which to start a business.

Turning Technologies, a software company focusing on audience response systems for universities and businesses, began with just a few people in a business incubator downtown and has since grown to about 150 employees.

In all, about 4,000 jobs have been created over the past 10 years, many of them in three business parks that the city has developed on formerly contaminated land, says William D’Avignon, director of the Community Development Agency. The business parks occupy old steel mill properties.

New mentality

Hunter Morrison, longtime planning director for Cleveland before he accepted a position at Youngstown State University about eight years ago, says industrial cities that have lost much of their population and economic base must put the past behind them. “Here people have basically said, ‘You’re right, we have to put Grandpa’s portrait to the wall and start over,’” Morrison says.

George Dark of Urban Strategies in Toronto, Ontario, led the consultant team that helped Youngstown sort out its thoughts. “They could ask some hard questions that Americans couldn’t,” Morrison says of Urban Strategies. “Canadians are not so bound to manifest destiny. It’s hard for Americans to wrap their minds around the idea that shrinking is OK.”

Morrison says Youngstown, unlike Detroit, has the advantage of being small enough that a sizable proportion of the population can participate in discussions about the future. In addition, he says, Youngstown is small enough that “it’s not a media circus.”

In contrast to Detroit, where much of the initiative recently has come from the top, Morrison contends that in Youngstown much of the thinking percolated upward. Dark and his team tried to find local individuals who had achieved some degree of success, and then encouraged them to participate. One of their finds was a businessman with five shops selling cream pies. Another was a man who had started a school. “We kept collecting these people,” Dark says. At the biggest gathering, he recalls, “hundreds of people came to the mics to speak.”

Turning aims into actions

The goal, articulated in many community meetings, was: “Be a sustainable midsize city.” Don’t try to spend the city’s limited amount of money everywhere to maintain everything the way it once was. Resources are too scant for widespread spending to achieve success.

“You have to save the very best, and you have to move on,” says Morrison, the university’s liaison to the city on development issues. ”It’s a mindset that turns out to be very liberating.”
It translates into policies and actions such as these:

• Saving one of the five theaters that the downtown once had. The theater is used by the symphony orchestra.

• Looking critically at how much of the housing supply can be rescued from dilapidation. “Working-class housing is too hard to fix up,” Morrison says. “Take it down. … Take out properties that are not salvageable. Repair the ones that are.”

• Assembling five to 10 lots to make a community garden when several abandoned houses are razed. There, says Morrison, people can “improve their nutrition, make a little money, and work with neighborhood youth.” (The gardens often need to have raised beds, to avoid contaminated soil.)

• Taking other abandoned properties and adding them to an adjoining metropolitan park.

• Running the city in a lean way — turning off every other street light, for example. Compared to other distressed cities, Morrison says, “Youngstown has done a better job of managing an impossible budget.”

• Letting people know that when they’re willing to sell a deteriorated house, the city or the university is willing to buy it. “We’re working with a land bank,” Morrison points out. “The university can buy the house; the house is respectfully removed. We haven’t pushed anybody out.”
A proposal that was for a time voiced by Mayor Dave Bing in Detroit — consolidating neighborhoods by returning some lightly populated areas to nature or farming — strikes Morrison as unworkable in any city where African-Americans harbor painful memories of urban renewal.

• Collaborating with other organizations. The Wien Foundation, the relatively new Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation (YNDC), and other philanthropic or nonprofit organizations have joined in Youngstown’s efforts. YNDC is working in three neighborhoods. In one, Idora, which Ian Beniston of YNDC calls “a food desert,” there are hopes of getting a grocery store established.

• Tying the university into the downtown. In the past, Youngstown State’s strategy was to acquire property on the periphery of the campus, demolish what was there, and “create a ring of parking lots,” says Mayor Williams. “Now the university builds to impact the city more positively.”

An uphill struggle

Youngstown has continued to see its population drop by about 1,000 a year, to approximately 72,000. Weakness in the local economy and especially in housing demand has made it hard to achieve dramatic results. Plans for developing a mixed-use neighborhood in Smoky Hollow, down the slope east of the university, haven’t progressed much beyond where they were when New Urban News reported on that endeavor in 2005.

“The collapse of the real estate market [nationally as well as locally] has made it more difficult,” the mayor observes. That applies across most of the city. A developer acquired an old office tower downtown and converted it into apartments, but according to Williams, “it’s been slow to lease up.”

Public money has been spent to erect a new court building and a convocation center for sports events and concerts. About five new eating establishments and two or three nightclubs have opened downtown, says D’Avignon. “We went through a process with the State of Ohio to establish an arts and entertainment district, with 15 new liquor permits, just in a designated area downtown.”

Various improvements notwithstanding, a vibrant city has yet to be generated on Mahoning River. A case can be made that industrial cities, after suffering decades of decline, are better off recognizing their reduced condition than denying it. It’s important avoid wasting their limited resources on peripheral projects. “Youngstown 2010,” which is now due for an update, seems to have produced some worthwhile changes.

But whether an “urban shrinkage” policy can return a long-depressed city to health remains to be seen. In January 2009, a survey by the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative found 4,564 vacant structures and 22,792 vacant lots in the city.  In all, 44 percent of the real estate parcels in Youngstown “experience some form of vacancy,” the Collaborative concluded.

With 62 vacant structures per 1,000 residents, Youngstown at that time had a vacancy rate 23 times the national average. As of last month, the situation had improved only marginally. The New York Times reported Dec. 20 that “the vacant-building rate is still 20 times the national average.”

The average price of a Youngstown house during the past year was about $17,000, according to The Times. The city doesn’t have the money to pull down all the empty buildings.

Even the mayor admits, when asked about development, “it’s been very slow.”