Public meeting kicks off Union City downtown initiative

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Public meeting kicks off Union City downtown initiative

By Steven Bishop

A $50,000 initiative to create a master plan for Union City’s downtown, including individualized plans for most of its buildings, kicked off in front of nearly 50 people recently at the Union City American Legion.

The crowd included downtown local business and property owners, government officials from Union City and Erie County, historical preservation officials, representatives of the nonprofit Union City Pride and the Union City Community Foundation, and others.

Union City Borough is using a $25,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, and matching funds from the borough ($2,000), the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority ($10,000) and the community foundation ($13,000) to fund the initiative.

Borough Secretary/Treasurer Cindy Wells introduced representatives from the selected architectural and consulting firms that have already started gathering information and meeting with downtown property owners – citySTUDIO of Pittsburgh, and T&B Planning of Murrysville, Pa. Those representatives over two hours outlined their process for creating the master plan, initiated a discussion about downtown improvement ideas with the crowd during a break-out session, and left the crowd with words of encouragement.

Ryan England of citySTUDIO said he and his colleagues have worked in many downtowns through the years, including several smaller communities similar to Union City. He said compared to many of them, “Your Main Street looks really great. It’s a great business district.”

England said Union City’s downtown buildings – constructed largely between 1865 and 1925 – “has a lot of good things going on, and a lot of potential for the future.”

Tracy Zinn of T&B Planning told the crowd that the plan will be completed this year. The process, she said, includes engaging the public, creating an inventory of the downtown’s buildings and their historical assets, developing a list of downtown challenges and opportunities, drafting the overall and individualized preservation plans, and two or three rounds of revisions before the final product will be completed.

She stressed that utilizing the plans, and adherence to the suggestions and recommendations, is entirely voluntary. The goals of the initiative, Zinn said, including attracting investment and entrepreneurs to the downtown, enhancing the value of the buildings, and increasing the community’s awareness of its assets.

She also said the planners will strive to create realistic improvement plans, with accompanying cost projections, that building owners can actually implement.

“I’ve seen a lot of historic preservation plans with lots of vision, but not so practical” in terms of costs and time, she said. “So we’re taking a very practical approach to the project.”

Aiding the property owners, said Cindy Wells, is a pool of $30,000 available in 2019 that can provide one-to-one funding matches of up to $10,000. Those funds come from a $200,000 Mission Main Street program grant awarded to Union City from the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority (ECGRA). More of those ECGRA matching funds will be made available in 2020, she said.

Zinn said project results will include establishing an “architectural theme” for the downtown, identifying streetscape elements, and providing recommendations on things like windows and doors, lighting, landscaping, open spaces, and materials that fit each specific use.

She said that the guidelines will provide building owners a tool – to be used now or in the future – to make improvements. The design guidelines can be critical in helping building owners do preservation the right way. Using the wrong materials or in the wrong way, she said, “could devalue the building’s historic value.”

Economic development benefits of Union City undertaking the planning initiative, said Zinn, include maintaining the downtown’s authenticity, restoring the tax base, creating jobs, and stimulating private investment. Community development benefits, she said, include connecting citizens to their past, reviving community spirit, and encouraging local participation.

She noted Pennsylvania continues to invest in such initiatives because “there is real evidence that historical preservation works, for economic development for communities.”

Ryan England noted the individual building plans will include recommendations for both exterior and interior work, including ideas for using vacant available space, such as second floors.

Union City’s downtown, England said, “has a lot of good things going on, and a lot of potential for the future.”