Batavia is a city with a lot going for it, where the pluses more than cancel out the negatives, but to talk with local residents and business owners, you would never know it, according to a trio of consultants who spent time recently studying every aspect of life in Batavia.
The consultants, Charles Buki, with czb LLC, Kennedy Lawson Smith (pictured above), with Clue Group, and David Boehlke, made several visits to Batavia, spending time interviewing people, hanging out in coffee shops and restaurants (sometimes just listening to the chatter a table or booth over), walking residential neighborhoods and visiting local businesses, as well as gathering and studying all available data on the city.
Their conclusion, presented at a meeting Wednesday evening at city hall: There's too much negative talk about Batavia, and the negative attitudes hold down home values and discourage business development.
"The overarching message is this is a wonderful community, " Buki said. "Rarely do we get a chance to be in such a welcoming place, such a beautiful place. This is the kind of community we grew up in, almost everywhere we looked, there are strengths and opportunities."
But, Buki, Smith and Boehlke all said they were taken aback by the amount of negative talk about Batavia.
"Destructive language and sentiment dominates discussions," said Buki (bottom inset). "Public as well as private institutions present Batavia poorly."
Even signs at the city entrance and public parks present a negative image, the consultants said, telling visitors "this is not a fun place," suggesting there are problems in the city that they should worry about.
"Batavia has a habit of seeing the glass as half-empty and half-empty and half-empty until it is dry," said Boehlke (top inset).
Among the positives for the city are more than 200 homes of historic value, several successful locally owned businesses, nice parks, recreational opportunities, a history of volunteerism, affordable housing and a central location between Buffalo and Rochester.
While local residents complain about declining neighborhoods, the city is actually dominated by a core group of good, caring homeowners, Boehlke said.
While there is an overabundance of single-family homes that have been converted to two-, three- and four-unit complexes -- 25 percent of the housing stock -- there are fewer than 40 troubled properties in the city. Yet most of the chatter the consultants heard about neighborhoods is that there is widespread decline.
The negative attitudes about neighborhoods and housing are hurting real estate values. Homes are undervalued by as much as 20 percent (compared to similar homes in the Town of Batavia) said Boehlke, with a majority of owners and renters paying less for rent and mortgages than they can actually afford.
The perceived lack of real estate value discourages some property owners from making needed investments in their property, which can cause actual declines in value.
"This is not a city with a true housing problem," said Boehlke. "It’s a city with a tremendous opportunity."
Residents and city leaders have a habit of thinking "if only we had more enforcement" all of our problems will be solved, the consultants said. But arresting people on more misdemeanor crimes or (having) stronger code enforcement isn't going to fix much, they said.
The city needs to develop a strategic plan for community improvement and economic development, and downtown is at the core of it.
And one of the biggest problems downtown is what urban renewal wrought -- the mall, which both sucks the life out of downtown and is probably is what feeds a lot of the negative attitudes about Batavia.
Smith spoke about the history of downtown declines across the country, which is a product of interstate highways, the G.I. bill and suburbanization, changes in tax law (rewarding mall developers) and the rise of mega chains such as Walmart.
In some ways, Batavia is not unique, and urban renewal was a reaction to these changes in society, but the destruction of the north side of Main Street didn't just reduce the economic strength of downtown by 50 percent. It reduced it by 80 percent.
Vibrant downtowns need street-facing retail businesses on both sides of the street to thrive, Smith said.
Her suggestion: Deconstruct the mall so that there are more street-facing businesses and a mixture of retail, office and residential space.
There are ways to get it done, she said, if the community makes it a priority.
"We have heard everybody's pain and everybody's feelings," Smith said. "It's something you're going to have to grapple with over the next five to 10 years if you're ever going to fix downtown Batavia."