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Published: Friday, 8/8/2008

United Way board votes to raze downtown Toledo landmark

BY KATE GIAMMARISE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The oddly shaped downtown structure that has housed the United Way and and its forerunners and numerous nonprofit agencies since the 1960s will be torn down. (THE BLADE)
<br>
<img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/gif/TO17150419.GIF> <b><font color=red>VIEW</b></font color=red>: <a href=" /assets/pdf/TO5250288.PDF" target="_blank "><b>United Way letter to the community</b></a> The oddly shaped downtown structure that has housed the United Way and and its forerunners and numerous nonprofit agencies since the 1960s will be torn down. (THE BLADE) <br> <img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/gif/TO17150419.GIF> <b><font color=red>VIEW</b></font color=red>: <a href=" /assets/pdf/TO5250288.PDF" target="_blank "><b>United Way letter to the community</b></a>
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Citing the increasing costs of running -and renovating -an older building, the United Way of Greater Toledo board has voted to build a new structure and demolish its headquarters in the heart of downtown.

The board, made up of 22 members, voted unanimously with one absence at a special meeting Wednesday to raze the One Stranahan Square structure.

Meetings with United Way staff and other building tenants are scheduled for early this morning.

Additionally, a forum is scheduled for 5 p.m. Tuesday at the building to answer questions and share the United Way's plan with the public, said Bill Kitson, president and CEO of the organization.

The United Way building will be replaced with a smaller building, shown in this artist's rendering. The planned two-story replacement would be constructed in the current United Way parking lot at Jackson and North Superior streets. The United Way building will be replaced with a smaller building, shown in this artist's rendering. The planned two-story replacement would be constructed in the current United Way parking lot at Jackson and North Superior streets.
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"This is our opportunity to hear from the community," he said. Mr. Kitson added that he does not expect a huge outcry from the public to save the building, but the board could always reconsider.

"No dirt has been turned yet," he said.

The decision was a difficult one, Mr. Kitson said, but was necessary given the agency's financial picture. The United Way spends about $400,000 annually in building costs, he added.

"That $400,000 could feed people this summer, could keep people in their homes this summer," Mr. Kitson said. "And we're blowing it on a building."

The costs to renovate the current building would exceed $10 million, versus a price tag of only $4.9 million for a new, energy-efficient building, according to the United Way.

According to the Lucas County auditor's office, the land and building are worth $5 million.

The agency is committed to downtown, and no other downtown space met United Way's needs, Mr. Kitson said. Furthermore, he said, selling the building is not feasible in Toledo's real estate market, especially in its current condition.

The agency would still need to obtain permission from the five-member city plan commission for the demolition, said Tom Lemon, principal planner for the city of Toledo.

Mr. Kitson said the proposed new structure would be built where the parking lot is now; would be two stories tall, instead of five, and have 25,000 square feet of space, rather than 100,000. The current building's vacated space will be converted to a park, at a further cost of $1.1 million.

The odd-shaped building has housed the United Way - formerly called Community Chest - and numerous nonprofit agencies since its late-1960s construction, financed with several million dollars in contributions from the Stranahan family, founders of Champion Spark Plug Co. in Toledo.

Bounded by Superior, Orange, St. Clair, and Jackson streets, the structure was originally called the Community Services Building, as it was built to house many community agencies.

William Foster, vice president and treasurer of the Stranahan Foundation, and great-grandson of R.A. Stranahan, Sr., said his family supports the United Way's plan and has been involved in the process of deciding what to do with the building. Mr. Foster served on the building committee that made the recommendation to the board to replace the current structure.

"Forty years ago, it was a state-of-the-art building, it was fully funded by the family, it was a great thing," he said. "Looking at it now, it needs new heating and air conditioning, everything needs upgrading."

The decision to build anew is "a no-brainer," he said. "If that money can go back to the community and the agencies, that's a great thing."

Board member Baldemar Velasquez, who was absent for the vote Wednesday but heard a presentation about the plan last week, said replacement was the most prudent option.

"There seemed to be a consensus around the table," Mr. Velasquez said. "I didn't really hear any objections. It was a pretty convincing presentation."

He added, "We're concerned about the best shepherding of the resources of the community and the agency, and trying to do what is best in these hard times for the families in Toledo."

The building's architect, Byron West, has said the structure was intended to serve as a timeless memorial to the Stranahan family. By creating an edifice with many corners, lines, and layers, he was trying to maximize the building's shade, shadow, and sunlight features.

Because of the many offices housed inside, Mr. West has said he wanted to avoid a "boxy" look and emphasized a vertical motif, with the building's many lines and windows all pointing skyward.

Another unique feature is the building's uneven roof line, which was meant to mimic the downtown skyline.

"Obviously, I view this with a good deal of sadness, as I have lived with the building for almost 40 years," Mr. West wrote in an e-mail to The Blade yesterday in which he also questioned the renovation cost estimate.

"All in all, I think it is sad that Toledoans once again are choosing to do away with a real landmark," he wrote. "In many respects, the building is a piece of art and not just another cheap box. I'm afraid people in the future will wonder why such a thing was ever taken away."

In addition to the United Way, the building now houses 11 other nonprofit tenants, including the AIDS Resource Center of Ohio, Erie Shores Council of the Boy Scouts of America, and Toledo Lucas County Homelessness Board.

At least one tenant had previously expressed frustration with a lack of information from United Way about what was happening with the building.

Mr. Kitson said the United Way will implement a tenant transition plan to help other organizations relocate.

The proposed new building will have community meeting rooms available for public use, Mr. Kitson said, but will not rent space to other tenants.

"We're not good landlords," he said. "It's not our mission. We're not in the real estate business." Money that probably should have been spent on building upkeep over the years went to agencies and other United Way work, he said.

The building has a 70 percent occupancy rate, and has not been fully occupied for more than a decade, according to United Way.

In 1973, the building had 37 tenants, compared to only 11 now.

The overall vacancy rate in Toledo's central business district is about 22 percent, according to data from CB Richard Ellis.

At the time the building opened, the idea was to have a number of different nonprofit agencies all sharing space and collaborating, bringing services together.

That never happened, Mr. Kitson said.

"Synergy was never achieved," he said. "It became very difficult with one nonprofit leasing space from another and strained the relationship."

Funds borrowed from the United Way's board-designated fund will finance the new construction, Mr. Kitson said.

The board approved tapping up to $6.4 million from this fund, which it regularly uses to subsidize administrative costs, then reimbursing the fund with $2 million to $3 million from a targeted capital fund-raising campaign. The balance would be repaid over time from other fund-raising efforts.

Regular United Way supporters, both groups and individuals, will be targeted in the targeted campaign.

"It will by no means be an open call for donations," said Kelli Kreps, United Way marketing coordinator.

Mr. Kitson added that though the change may not be easy for some, "it was the best business decision to make."

Contact Kate Giammarise at:

kgiammarise@theblade.com

or 419-724-6133.



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