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The United Way of Greater Toledo's controversial request to demolish its former headquarters downtown won narrow approval yesterday from the city's plan commission, rebuffing pleas by preservationists for a six-month reprieve.
Toledo Plan Commission members voted 3-2 in favor of demolition after more than 90 minutes of discussion, debate, and public comments during a meeting that attracted an audience of close to three dozen people.
United Way officials argued that the 41-year-old building is a financial drain on the nonprofit's resources and insisted that every reasonable effort was made to find interested buyers. But preservationists questioned the seriousness of the agency's sale attempts and lamented that Toledo could lose yet another vital piece of its urban fabric to the wrecking ball.
"If we continue tearing down these buildings in the heart of our community, you're going to get a downtown that continues to look more like an office park or a strip mall," said Lucas County Commissioner Ben Konop, one of several speakers who lobbied the plan commission unsuccessfully for a six-month delay to allow time to aggressively market the building for re-use.
Plan commission members voting for demolition were Rey Boezi, Bernard Culp, and David Gstalder. Those opposed were Catherine Hoolahan and A. Bailey Stanbery.
The city will now wait 10 days before issuing the United Way's demolition permit. But if an "interested party" such as a councilman, architect, or concerned citizen appeals yesterday's decision, the tear-down request will go to Toledo City Council for a final vote.
The former Community Services building at One Stranahan Square opened in 1969. The six-story, 100,000-square-foot structure was vacated by the United Way in October, when the agency moved into an adjacent new and smaller $4.9 million headquarters.
In discussing the old headquarters' fate, Mr. Gstalder attested to the building's poor interior layout and said he disagreed with claims that the angular brown masonry structure contributes to a dense urban setting.
The facility is rather a "campus building" that happens to be near downtown, he said.
"This is a suburban building - it does not add to the urban core," Mr. Gstalder said. "What you're looking at is essentially a lovely sculpture but a failed building."
Not all of his colleagues agreed.
"Very disappointing," Ms. Hoolahan said prior to the vote. "I really deplore the tear-down mentality."
City councilman Joe McNamara and architect Paul Sullivan joined in the call for a six-month time-out. The United Way plans to replace the leveled building with a park as part of its "community-friendly land banking opportunity." Years down the road, the park could be sold to a developer and built upon, with proceeds benefiting the agency's nonprofit mission.
Bill Kitson, the United Way's president and CEO, told commissioners that he opposed the six-month delay as it would burden his agency with $100,000 of upkeep expenses and affect funding to other nonprofit agencies that help the needy.
"Which agency doesn't get support this year when I have to cut $100,000 out of our budget?," Mr. Kitson said rhetorically. "The question I ask you is who pays for this, who pays for the empty building that's sitting there" if it's not torn down.
The United Way says that keeping the building has cost more than $200,000 a year.
The agency's most recent cost estimate for renovation was $10.3 million. But plan commissioner Mr. Stanbery said that price seemed too high.
Yesterday Mr. Kitson also dismissed Mr. Konop's suggestion that the United Way tried to turn off potential buyers by emphasizing the building's shortcomings over its attributes during tours.
"Whether our form was glitzy and showy or downtrodden and true, the reality is that nobody said, 'Yup, I'm willing to take this challenge on'•" Mr. Kitson said.
"Nobody has even taken a second meeting when they've come through the building."
United Way volunteer Sharon Belkofer of Perrysburg told commissioners that she also was worried about the indirect effects a demolition holdup could have on those who benefit from the agency's services.
"What programs are we going to have to cut?" Mrs. Belkofer said. "We can't afford to continue subsidizing a building that no longer serves any purpose in this community."
The call for a six-month delay was first voiced yesterday at an earlier meeting of city council's neighborhoods, community development, and health committee.
Keith Wilkowski, a former county commissioner and city law director who ran unsuccessfully last year for mayor, suggested it.
"It can be torn down at any time, but it cannot be rebuilt at any time," Mr. Wilkowski said during the meeting at which council members discussed Mr. McNamara's proposed resolution urging the United Way's board of trustees to save the building.
Mr. McNamara asked his colleagues to take a broader view of the former United Way building's place in Toledo.
"We need to look at a building not just in isolation but its effect on the neighborhood and downtown and the community as a whole," the councilman said.
Council members at the earlier meeting also sat through a history lesson about downtown Toledo from a 2009 graduate of Sylvania Southview High School.
Kiernan Sanders, 18, a freshman architecture student at the Illinois Institute of Technology who is home on spring break, gave a multimedia slide-show presentation that highlighted the many historic buildings that once filled downtown.
But where there was once beautiful brickwork and inspiring architecture, now it's a parade of surface parking lots.
"The question now is what happens next," said Mr. Sanders, with his parents and girlfriend also in the audience. "The next time I give this presentation, am I going to have to include the Community Services Building too?"
Appealing yesterday's plan commission decision would be a challenge for preservation advocates.
Several councilmen - Mike Ashford, Rob Ludeman, Lindsay Webb, Tom Waniewski, and D. Michael Collins - have already stated publicly that they don't feel council should weigh in on what the United Way does with its own property.
Mr. Collins said he was concerned about "the message behind the massage" that the city would send if it began second-guessing property owners' decisions for political reasons. He also said he was glad the United Way chose to stay downtown with its new headquarters building.
"They could have moved, and they could have moved out of the city," Mr. Collins said.
Councilman Adam Martinez last night said he would vote to uphold the plan commission decision.
"This becomes a personal property rights issue, and I think the United Way is going to do the best for the community they serve and the board of directors," he said.
Councilman Mike Craig said he was undecided.
"It depends on the circumstances," Mr. Craig said. "There are other buildings I would rather save - one being the former Fifth Third Bank building on Madison Avenue. If you are going to have to pick your fights, that one really concerns me. It's an integral part of a block."
Staff Writer Ignazio Messina contributed to this report.
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