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Submitted by Steve Bishop
A year-long structural analysis of downtown Union City’s buildings is complete, and building owners now have the opportunity to apply for matching funds to address identified issues.
Union City has been focused on its downtown the past few years, including the completion of an historic preservation plan, façade improvements, the purchase of the former Union City Dinor and an adjacent building by nonprofit Union City Pride, and the recent completion of a proposed downtown “gateway” redesign to include the former diner property.
In 2021 PennDOT will undertake a significant reconfiguration of the major downtown intersection at Main and High streets, including safety upgrades to the railroad crossing there.
The decision to conduct a structural analysis of the downtown’s buildings came in 2019 as Union City Pride applied to the Erie Community Foundation for a “Shaping Tomorrow” grant. The foundation awarded the organization a $258,000 grant for multiple projects, of which $38,000 was targeted to the structural analysis. That $38,000 was combined with a $38,000 grant to the borough from the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority’s Mission Main Street program, for the overall $76,000 initiative.
The Pittsburgh firm citySTUDIO, which had earlier conducted the borough’s historic preservation plan, was awarded the project and recently delivered the last of the 19 individual building assessments. The work varied by building, and included elements of structural assessments, façade recommendations for those that didn’t receive them during an earlier façade initiative, and upper-floor use suggestions called “white box” drawings.
“Union City has a lot of great buildings, beautiful buildings with historic and architectural detailing,” said Ryan England, a partner at citySTUDO who inspected most of the buildings and oversaw the work. “There are also a lot of under-used spaces – most second floors are vacant, and many of these spaces can be renovated and put to use. Our plans and reports will be a tool to building owners to understand the condition and potential of their spaces.”
The structural assessments themselves included reviews of foundations and structural supports, exterior and interior walls, roofs, floors, any obvious electrical or plumbing issues, safety, and more. Each building owner received a report that breaks the building’s elements into five potential scores ranging from “extremely poor” to “excellent,” includes photographs and narratives about what was found, and suggestions for improvements.
The “white box” drawings for upper floors suggested uses and provided potential designs, to give owners ideas for additional revenue generation.
“Often time, it’s hard for an owner to imagine what their vacant building or second floor can be used for,” said England. “These ‘white box’ plans explore uses for almost half of the vacant space downtown. They can be used as the start of a renovation project, or to market space for rent by a tenant who would do the renovation themselves.”
The analyses can help building owners prioritize, said Wells.
“The structural assessments provide the property owners with potential issues that may need to be addressed sooner rather than later,” she noted. “It doesn’t make sense to fix up the front of the building if the priority should be making it structurally stable.
She also noted that as any of the buildings become available for sale, the analyses can provide potential buyers accurate information on the condition of the building, as well as ideas for other potential uses.
With the analyses completed, those building owners now have the opportunity to apply to the borough for up to $12,000 each in matching funds to address any of the issues or opportunities outlined in their assessments. The borough has a matching fund of $42,500 available for distribution, also made available by ECGRA’s Mission Main Street program.
Wells said the grant applications require cost estimates, and will be received through Feb. 19. If total requests exceed $42,500 they will be evaluated and prioritized for funding. Otherwise they will be evaluated on a first-come, first-served basis.
England said that between working on Union City’s historic preservation plan and the structural analyses, he’s been impressed by the community.
“We have met many dedicated, passionate residents and owners,” he said. “People really care about their community and want to see it improved. Some people want to do more with their buildings and are excited to have some direction. Some people didn’t see the potential in their spaces, and we were able to show them ways that they could renew their buildings and see an income from that.”
During the earlier historic preservation plan process, citySTUDIO representatives said Union City’s downtown contained an impressive number of architecturally noteworthy buildings. Asked if getting inside the buildings changed their initial opinions, England said, “Our more detailed review confirmed what we saw at first – the architecture and structures of downtown Union City are generally in good condition, and are something that any Pennsylvania town would be proud of.”
England said having almost the entire downtown analyzed at the same time could be a powerful tool for the community.
“Our firm has never been able to do this much work in one place,” he noted. “The plans we have produced will give a whole generation of owners the tools and ideas to start something new in Union City. Some owners have already started projects, others are considering them, and year after year for the next 10 or 20 years these plans will bear fruit in your community.”