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Published: Wednesday, 2/17/2010

Another throwaway

THE United Way of Greater Toledo's determination to proceed with demolition of its former downtown headquarters at One Stranahan Square comes as no surprise. Still, it represents the latest regrettable capitulation to the throwaway mind-set that afflicts too many decisions about downtown development.

The building, which opened in 1969, is not old enough to be considered historic. But with reasonable maintenance and renovation, it is structurally sound and still usable. It surely is more architecturally distinctive than the adjacent new building the United Way moved into last October.

Adaptive reuse of the vacant building would provide a new source of revenue for the United Way's important activities. Tearing it down will save the United Way the $200,000 a year the organization says it otherwise would have to divert to its mothballing.

Yet razing the building and converting its lot to green space will invoke their own costs — less than $300,000 and about $100,000 respectively, the United Way estimates. Demolition also will preclude forever the possibility of getting something for the building.

United Way executives say no would-be buyer has made an offer for the building in the past two years. That's hardly surprising, since a deep recession has gripped Toledo for about that long. Many businesses and other institutions have been more focused on survival than on relocation or expansion during that period.

When the city's economy recovers, as it will, potential tenants could find the building more appealing. By then, though, it will be too late. However attractive the park the United Way plans to build on the site, that would not seem the highest and best use of a central downtown location.

Several years ago, a number of deteriorating buildings near Fifth Third Field and Lucas County Arena appeared more ready for the wrecking ball than the United Way building is now. Instead, their owners rehabilitated them to take advantage of the crowds the new venues attract. They are thriving today, contributing to downtown economic activity.

The United Way demolition seems a done deal. Mayor Mike Bell supports it; so, evidently, does the Stranahan family. No one on the organization's board has dissented from the decision in public. Approval by the city Plan Commission appears a formality.

The United Way says it must focus on the people it serves, rather than brick and mortar. That need not be the choice. A greater effort to find a creative new use for the building could have served the interests both of the organization's clients and of downtown's economic and aesthetic prospects. It still could.

It would be unfortunate if the demolition controversy were to cause some preservation-minded donors to reconsider their contributions to the United Way. The vital work of the organization, at a time of urgent need, deserves the community's support more than ever before.

In any event, it appears that downtown Toledo soon will have one more vacant lot — just what it needs. The United Way generally, and admirably, achieves its self-described goals of “delivering measurable results and advancing the common good.” In this instance, though, the organization's decision seems shortsighted and wasteful.



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