Thursday, May 03, 2007


As Its Population Declines, Youngstown Thinks Small

As Its Population Declines,
Youngstown Thinks Small

Rather Than Trying
To Grow, Ohio City
Plans More Open Space
May 3, 2007; Page A1

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Hanging next to city planner Bill D'Avignon's desk is a giant map of this city, divided into neighborhoods. One is Oak Hill, a gritty enclave just south of downtown. The neighborhood, once densely populated, has lost 60% of its population in recent decades and is dotted with abandoned buildings and empty lots.

Faced with the devastation of Oak Hill and other depressed pockets of the city, Youngstown is trying an unusual approach: Allow such areas to keep emptying out and, in some cases, become almost rural. Unused streets and alleys eventually could be torn up and planted over, the city says. Abandoned buildings could be razed, leading to the creation of larger home lots with plenty of green space, and new parks.

[go to map]1

Youngstown, a former steel-producing hub, has been losing residents for years as a result of the closing of most of its steel mills. But rather than struggle to regain its former glory or population, it has adopted an economic-development plan that boils down to controlled shrinkage. By accepting the inevitable, the city says it can reduce its housing stock, infrastructure and services accordingly.

The plan is still in its early stages. As a first step, Mr. D'Avignon and other city planners have divided Youngstown into 127 neighborhoods, and labeled them as stable, transitional or weak. Now they're working on a customized plan for each one, noting which corners need street signs, which sidewalks need to be repaired and which buildings need to be demolished. The goal is to craft plans for about 30 neighborhoods a year.

Another goal is to wipe away the most obvious blight. The city estimates it will take about four years to bulldoze the biggest eyesores, including about 1,000 abandoned homes and several hundred old stores, schools and other structures.

"The vision is still evolving, but the ultimate result will be to create more open space where there used to be part of the city," says Mr. D'Avignon.

Talk like that would be considered blasphemy in most cities, where officials are taught to promote growth and development and fight against population decline. Accepting that a city is going to shrink goes against conventional wisdom that a bigger city means more jobs, more taxpayers, more revenue, better education, and better services -- in essence, a higher standard of living.

Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams3 explains the strategy behind the plan to scale down the town.

"It's un-American. It seems like you're doing something wrong if you're not growing," says Hunter Morrison, director of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at Youngstown State University, who worked with the city to come up with its strategy. But he says the idea is "not really about growth or shrinkage, it's about managing change."

Controversial Approach

The approach is controversial. Encouraging and accepting the hollowing out of neighborhoods will, by default and design, hit Youngstown's poor and minority residents the hardest. About 45% of Youngstown's residents are black, another 5% Hispanic, and the blight is heavily concentrated in minority neighborhoods, which are slated for the biggest makeovers.

"You always have to ask yourself: 'What areas are going to be abandoned?'" says John Russo, who teaches labor and working-class studies at Youngstown State. "And most of those are the African-American parts of the city."

Youngstown has promised not to force anyone to move, which has helped allay some fears in minority neighborhoods.

Others think the idea could be a hard sell. "You have to be skeptical, because it's really hard to do something like this," says Frank Popper, a Rutgers University land-use planner who studies regions with population declines. "The one thing you always run up against is that Americans don't want to be told about decline."

The Oak Hill neighborhood in Youngstown, Ohio

Youngstown, which has lost half its population since the 1950s, says it needs a radically different approach to halt decay. It's pointless to try to revive certain neighborhoods, the city's leaders argue, since the exodus of residents often makes those areas unpleasant and dangerous places to live, leading to further decline.

"The concept of trying to grow out of economic malaise is just not realistic for us," says Mayor Jay Williams, 35 years old. One of his first official acts after being elected in 2005 was to apply surplus money to demolition in the city.

Although Youngstown is one of the first cities to openly embrace this philosophy, the idea of planning to get smaller is gaining consideration around the world. Earlier this year, the University of California, Berkeley, held a symposium called "The Future of Shrinking Cities" that attracted 100 people from five continents.

In parts of eastern Germany, the government has earmarked some $3.4 billion for tearing down communist-era prefabricated apartment blocks and replacing them with green space, partly in response to an exodus of residents to the West.

European cities are more experienced with the phenomenon of shrinking urban centers, having endured centuries of war and famine that caused many of the region's great cities to fluctuate in size over time.

A Berlin-based "Shrinking Cities" project, partly funded by the German government, compiles research about urban-population loss. The group says that during the 1990s more than a quarter of the world's large cities saw population declines, mostly in industrial regions such as eastern Germany and the U.S. heartland, but also in Japan, Russia, and China, where people are moving from remote cities to booming coastal centers.

[Jay Williams]

"The issue is most visible in cities that are concentrated in a single industry, like steel," says Philipp Oswalt, an architect who heads the German project. Indeed, a similar pattern is now being repeated in a host of other Midwestern cities, including smaller ones such as Muncie, Ind., and Flint, Mich., which have seen huge shutdowns of auto-related plants and subsequent population declines.

Population loss can manifest itself in unexpected places and for a variety of reasons, says Mr. Oswalt. Paris, for instance, has a vibrant center, but is surrounded by rings of industrial suburbs where, in some cases, population is falling. New Orleans was radically downsized in a matter of hours by a hurricane and floods.

The German group has put together a traveling art exhibit on the topic, with works from more than 200 artists in 12 countries. One film profiles a suburban family moving the remains of a loved one from a city cemetery to a nearby township. A painting depicts a neighborhood scene where little remains but a utility pole surrounded by children's toys. The exhibit recently opened in Cleveland after a run in Detroit, two cities grappling with population declines.

Few cities have adopted a plan like Youngstown's. The city is a classic "hole in the donut" community -- increasingly empty in the middle, but with growing suburbs.

In 1950, Youngstown's population stood at 168,000. The steel industry was booming and city leaders envisioned Youngstown growing to a quarter of a million people by the end of the century. New neighborhoods were laid out on the fringes of the city in anticipation of growth.

A Tailspin

But by the 1980s, the steel industry had gone into a tailspin as producers faced an influx of lower-priced, foreign-made steel. Today, only a single large steel mill is left and the city's population has wilted to about 80,000. Most of the mills have been torn down.

Like other Midwest cities, Youngstown tried to find other big employers to replace steel. City officials lured both a state "supermax" prison and a for-profit prison. Other efforts, including redeveloping about 450 acres of former steel-mill sites into industrial parks, have been successful, but not the job-creating dynamos that steel was.

[Youngstown, Ohio]
A neighborhood on the north side of Youngstown, Ohio

Youngstown is bisected by the Mahoning River, a meandering waterway once lined with the mills. The city has made some headway in recent years, sprucing up downtown buildings, while Youngstown State -- located not far from downtown -- has invested in new buildings and landscaping. But population continued to decline and abandoned buildings blighted entire city blocks. Property- and income-tax revenue fell, and delinquencies rose.

In 1999, city officials decided they had to come up with a new master plan. The task was assigned to Mr. Williams, then a city planner and now mayor.

"We came up with a simple concept," he says. "This will be a smaller city, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing."

He doesn't mean physically smaller. Youngstown will never reduce its overall footprint, he says, because political boundaries are too deeply ingrained. Lopping off neighborhoods would likely prompt litigation from residents who don't want to lose city services. Meanwhile, neighboring suburbs aren't that interested in annexing Youngstown's problems.

'Clean and Green'

But within the city, which sprawls out over 35 square miles, there are sizable areas that can be shifted to other uses, Mr. Williams says. He envisions large blocks of green space throughout the city. The theme of the master plan is to make Youngstown "clean and green," he says.

The mayor has sharply increased the city's annual budget for demolition -- to $1.5 million this year from $320,000 in 2005. Youngstown is filled with properties that have been essentially abandoned by owners who failed to keep up tax payments. The city places liens on the properties it clears, to cover the cost of demolition, and recently shifted to a policy of trying to negotiate with owners to gain control over such parcels. These blurred ownership lines are one of the reasons the city expects it will take years to reshape many neighborhoods. "At this stage, we're focused on clearing decades of blight that had built up," says the mayor.

Tearing things down is relatively easy and is done by many cities. Much tougher is figuring out creative ways to use vacant land and getting residents to accept a new vision for what it means for their city to prosper.

With this in mind, Youngstown in late 2005 asked a group of urban planners to come up with design ideas, focusing on the Oak Hill neighborhood. Planners canvassed the neighborhood, asking residents what they would like to see. The answers surprised them.

Many city planners, for instance, favor creating dense developments. But many Oak Hill residents told them something very different.

"They said that the one thing they liked was that their area was becoming less dense -- that there was more space between them and their neighbors," says Terry Schwartz, an urban planner from Kent State. They weren't eager to see new housing built either, since many long-time residents fear new units are almost certain to be low-income housing.

Joseph Jennings, a 74-year-old retired steelworker, has lived in Oak Hill since he came to Youngstown in the 1950s from West Virginia to work in the mills. He says he likes the idea of reshaping his neighborhood so it's less crowded. "It'd help hold up the value of the property and make people more willing to invest," he says. "It's a good thing to spread things out -- that's the way people like to live nowadays anyway."

He built his house nearly 30 years ago, buying a double lot so he would have room for a two-car garage. He notes there are a number of empty lots on his street today.

Norma Stefanik, an urban designer who lives in one of Youngstown's most desirable neighborhoods, on the city's north side, says more attention should be paid to basics -- such as using existing building codes to pressure landowners to do a better job of maintaining their properties. "A lot could be done just by going after the people who are letting their properties decline," she says.

Rufus Hudson, an African-American councilman who represents Youngstown's largely minority east side, knows the areas slated for emptying out are mostly occupied by minorities. But he says the city can't continue to serve an infrastructure built for a much more densely populated city. "Our population has fallen steadily," he says, "but we still have 535 miles of roads that have to be kept paved and plowed."

The forces of demographics are doing much of the clearing for the city. Mr. Hudson estimates that within a decade, about 10% of the residential streets in his district will be empty enough to allow them to be closed.

The city has told residents that it will stop investing resources to redevelop certain areas. City officials say there are many places where streets could ultimately be dug up, street lights taken down, and sidewalks removed in order to create green spaces where there were once densely settled blocks.

While it doesn't have specifics yet, the city says it expects certain vacant land to be turned into parks or community gardens. Another idea, already taking place to a limited extent, is to take empty parcels on blighted streets and sell them for small amounts to remaining residents -- so homeowners who have decided to stay would be allowed to expand their yards or even rebuild their houses to spread out over more than one lot.

The day-to-day task of planning for a smaller Youngstown is handled by Mr. D'Avignon, director of the city's Community Development Agency, who works out of an office in a converted post-office building downtown. "We have to break the downward cycle," he says, noting that many people in Youngstown's stable neighborhoods are hesitant to invest in their homes, because they worry that the blight will eventually engulf them. "There's a mindset in Youngstown that says, 'It's coming my way, the blight is moving this way.' We have to put a stop to that."

Write to Timothy Aeppel at

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