The view of Batavia a space alien might get, as revealed by an image from Google Maps, tells pretty much the whole story of the community's economic struggles, Tim Tielman told members of the Genesee County Landmark Society last night at their annual meeting.
Right in the center of the city, Tielman said, is this big mass of gray. It's a dead zone, he said. It isn't built for the human animal. It's built for cars. That's no way to design a city.
It hasn't always been that way, of course. Tielman displayed a parcel map of Batavia at the end of the 19th Century. Downtown was filled with structures -- brick commercial buildings and hundreds of houses.
That's a city, he said, designed for human scale and one that is culturally and economically vibrant.
Tielman has worked tirelessly as a preservationist in Buffalo for decades. His list of accomplishments is impressive. Larkin Square, Canalside, the Lafayette Hotel, the Ellicott District, the H.H. Richardson Towers and the Webb Building, among other "saves" and restoration projects.
His work has been recognized in a John Paget documentary, “Buffalo: America’s Best-Designed City.”
The same kind of revitalization going on in Buffalo now could be Batavia's future, Tielman said.
If it's going to happen, it will be up to the preservationists, the people who understand human scale.
"One of the biggest issues every city faces is dead zones," Tielman said. "Batavia has dead zones up and down its streets. Dead zones are devoid of commercial activity. You chain too many dead zones together and you destroy your local community."
When you build your commercial district around the car, the district losses its appeal to pedestrians, and it's people walking and interacting that creates commercial activity and a sense of community.
"It isn't cars that make a place a commercial success," Tielman said. "It's a success (based) on how well the human animal can get about certain places. It's what appeals and what stimulates them to walk."
Batavia used to be that kind of city. From Harvester on the east to the Old Courthouse on the west, the old maps reveal, it was a walkable city.
Tielman used a Google Maps view to show Batavia today. Our picture above is from the county's GIS map. Below is a county aerial photo of the city from 1934 (a period, Tielman said, when Batavia was at its peak culturally and economically -- the 1920s through 1930s). Tielman used a turn of the century parcel map.
There's no reason, Tielman said, Batavia can't become that kind of city again.
He recommended the approach being used with Canalside now -- start small. That's how Joseph Ellicott started.
Canalside is the terminus of the Erie Canel at Lake Erie. Early development was small businesses in tents and small buildings. The larger, commercial brick structures came later. Tielman's suggestion is to start the commercial activity at an affordable pace, and it will grow.
He suggested the Genesse County Economic Development Center has it's economic development priorities backwards. The $1.7 million in tax breaks given to COR Development to lure large national chains to Batavia could have been used more productively to help start 50 small businesses downtown.
He called small businesses the "farm system" for greater economic growth. Communities that lose their ability to encourage and attract entrepreneurs stop growing.
There was a time when each small community was unique and the competitive advantage each had was that you had to be from the city to know how to get around the city and prosper in the city, then urban planners started coddling the national chains, creating a sameness in each community so the chains would be comfortable opening businesses there. That's helped destroy the small businesses that used to make cities and towns vital.
Tielman helped lead the successful fight against Bass Pro building at Canalside.
Rather than trying to attract national chains, Tielman suggested, planners and economic development agencies should be creating environments were local small business owners can thrive.
"Retail is important in a city," Tielman said. "It's not a primary economic activity, but it's important to bring people out, to have people in the streets, people who bump into each other and make it lively. Dense cities, dense streets, create economic activity."
When people visit a city, they want to see other people, smiling people, he said.
"If they see glum people on the streets, or worse, no people on the streets, but just tumbleweeds rolling down Main Street, they're not going to want to come back," Tielman said. "They're not going to want to move there. They're not going to want to move or start a business there."
And these days, Tielman noted, people don't even need to visit your city to form an impression. They can use Google Maps and Street View.
Tielman used the Google Street View image below to illustrate his point.
Tourists, prosective residents, and most importantly, site selectors for semiconductor companies, are going to look at a picture like this and conclude Batavia isn't a very attractive place to be. There's no signs of life. There's no economic vibrancy.
Handing out tax breaks to bring in a Dick's Sporting Goods doesn't fix this problem.
Tielman pulled up this Google Maps view of Batavia again and noted the one area of Old Batavia still left, the block between Jackson Street and Center Street, south of Main Street. It's the only part of Downtown that is still densely built.
"This is the kernel from which you can hit the reset button on Batavia," he said. "You can start here and work backwards toward that which you once had."