Youngstown Ohio’s Push for Midwest Urbanism
Let’s Talk Downtown
In the heart of Youngstown, the city’s downtown is nestled on the north side of the meandering and mighty Mahoning River. Wean Park, the Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre, and the Covelli Centre anchor the recreation and entertainment district on the southern portion of downtown. Federal Street is the downtown’s main street with a stable west end and burgeoning east end district lead by the adaptive reuse of a 27,000 square foot former manufacturing facility for steel mill equipment into the headquarters of Penguin City Brewing Company. The north end of downtown is capitalized by the campus of Youngstown State University.
Like many other legacy cities, Youngstown’s downtown has its mix of new and old, but the part of downtown that has faced the greatest challenges is its neighborhoods. Arlington, Mahoning Commons, Smokey Hollow, and many others that no longer exist in the form or structure they once had. Many of these challenges stem from the effects of deindustrialization and globalization, which are systems beyond local control. In the wake of losing the region’s industry, the local communities were left to deal with the lingering issues of population loss, disinvestment, and suburbanization.
Barriers and Constraints
The city’s downtown is geographically constrained, in part by natural elements like the Mahoning River and its topography. But the greater barrier and dividing force is the City’s highways. Surrounded on all sides, the downtown looks a bit like a lima bean. On the other side of the river to the south, Interstate 680 winds around separating the downtown from the south side, severing connection to some of the historically most dense neighborhoods in the city. Off of I-680, spurs a loop from the west end of downtown, across the north end, and curving back to rejoin I-680 to the east. This spur is the Madison Avenue Expressway, the recent focus of an effort to reimagine what the north end of the city’s downtown could be.
Construction of the Madison Avenue Expressway in the 1960s split the original neighborhood in half and severed community connectivity by constructing a trenched limited access freeway that created an imposing physical barrier, especially for pedestrians. Freeway construction led the project area to decline almost immediately as a larger number of homes were demolished to make way for the new expressway and many residents moved to outlying suburbs. Today, the expressway is critically underutilized, carrying far less traffic than the level of infrastructure justifies. Maintaining connectivity and performance of the transportation network can easily be accomplished with an infrastructure design that is more accessible and connects rather than divides.
Freeways with New Futures
The Madison Avenue Community Reconnection project is an initiative spurred by the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, the regions metropolitan planning organization. First identified in a planning study of the city’s Belmont Ave corridor, the project has set its sights on the USDOT’s Reconnecting Communities program that was born out of the Infrastructure, Investment, and Jobs Act. To find success there, Eastgate and the City recognize the need to build a broad coalition of community stakeholders with a shared vision.
A starting point for the project team was to engage with CNU’s Highways to Boulevards project. As CNU states, “The Highways to Boulevards movement offers a path forward for communities to repair, rebuild, and reknit. It seeks to replace aging highways that damage communities with assets like city streets, housing, and green space. These streets become places for the people who live around them, with local businesses and places for public interaction, as well as better integration with a city’s transit systems. Highways to Boulevards conversions increase access to jobs and services and allow for the creation of neighborhood-driven, well-functioning urban space.“ The local project team submitted Madison Avenue for inclusion in the upcoming Freeways Without Futures report and, as announced by CNU, was selected as one of ten projects to be featured. The 2023 Freeways Without Futures report will be released in April of this year.
Concurrently, Eastgate began some conceptual planning work on the conversion of a 1.5-mile section of Madison Avenue Expressway into a low-speed boulevard with complete streets (bike, pedestrian, transit) facilities integrated into the city’s street grid. The proposed concept would involve reconfiguring the high-speed freeway trench onto the southern frontage road through traffic calming, gateway roundabouts, and a Road Diet. This preliminary investigation allowed the project team to submit a planning grant request to the USDOT Reconnecting Communities program. The planning grant requested funds for a refinement of the conceptual alternative, exploration of feasibility, and development of preliminary engineering for the project. The project was not granted funds in the first round of the Reconnecting Communities program. The project team sees this setback as temporary and not as the end of the road for this concept, and they will refine the application for the next round of funding.
Justin Mondok is the Director of Planning & Development with the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments and a Board Member of CNU Midwest.