Calling its proposed replacement "a little tin box" and criticizing a disposable mentality, several people yesterday strongly criticized the local United Way's decision to do away with its landmark 1969 building, citing its distinctive architecture and the intangible value it brings to downtown Toledo.
John Welch said he has fond memories of visiting the United Way building as a youth for Eagle Scout activities.
"It makes me sad to think we're going to throw away this majestic building for a little tin box I see on the screen," said Mr. Welch, referring to the rendering of a proposed new headquarters.
Mr. Welch made his comments as United Way of Greater Toledo officials spoke to about 50 people at a community forum last night. Officials summarized the organization's finances and building costs and took questions about the construction plan.
The United Way board voted unanimously last week to build a new headquarters and demolish the current building at One Stranahan Square. The organization cited a $10 million project cost for renovations, compared with $6 million to build new, as justification.
Bill Kitson, United Way President and CEO, said fiscal reality dictates the course the agency must take.
"No one presented a financial solution," Mr. Kitson said after yesterday's meeting, referring to critics of the United Way's plan. "I heard a lot of sentiment for the building, and we feel the same way. But a viable financial solution didn't come up."
The organization says it spends about $400,000 annually maintaining the building, which with 100,000-square-feet of office space was intended to house myriad nonprofit agencies as tenants along with use by its owner.
But a high vacancy rate - only 54 percent of the space available to tenants is occupied - means the United Way has had to absorb more of the building's maintenance costs, Mr. Kitson said. The proposed new headquarters would house only the United Way.
Mr. Kitson also took issue with some critics' characterization of the new building as a box, saying that it is boxlike, but would have curves in its design, and be made of glass, stone, and brick.
Leasing office space elsewhere and trying to sell the building is impractical, Mr. Kitson said, as no other office space downtown would meet United Way's needs.
Furthermore, the building would be difficult to sell given the extensive upgrades it needs, he said.
University of Toledo President Lloyd Jacobs plans to tour the building Friday and consider whether the university might have some possible use for it.
The building was designed by prominent Toledo architect Byron West, who has said he hopes the structure can be saved.
Absent from last night's meeting was Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, though he has said he supports trying to save the building.
The mayor yesterday sent a letter to Mr. Kitson, Bob LaClair, United Way board chairman, and William Foster, vice president and treasurer of the Stranahan Foundation, urging its preservation.
The structure "is a unique and distinctive building that should be spared the wrecking ball," the mayor's letter states.
It also offers the assistance of the city's Department of Development to find other existing office space downtown if needed.
Stranahan family donations paid for the building's construction, and Mr. Foster has said the family supports doing whatever is best for the United Way.
The chairman of the city's Historic Districts Commission, Steven Shrake, also sent letters yesterday to Mr. Kitson and Mr. LaClair urging that the building, which it called a "contributing signature building in our community," be saved.
Another letter came from the Landmarks Preservation Council of Northwest Ohio.
"Its striking design mirrors the reason the United Way was founded - a city working together to help people in times of crisis," the letter states. "What is most disappointing is the message that we are a throwaway society. A building was built, used, but not taken care of. Instead of fixing the problems, the building is thrown away. Will that happen to the next building in 40 years?"
Irene Martin, the landmarks council's president, asked Mr. Kitson last night to make an effort to market the building.
Several other members of the preservation group also voiced support for saving it.
"I would hate to see it come down," group member Tom Haines said.
Mr. LaClair said United Way's decision was not made in haste, and was made with the assistance of professionals in the real estate, construction, and building maintenance fields.
While not everyone agrees with the decision, "At the end of the day, we're doing what we feel is right for United Way and the community," Mr. LaClair said.
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