Nearly two years in the making, a draft of a new comprehensive plan for Batavia has been presented to the City Council and soon it will be up to council members to decide what kind of future they want for the city.
One that maintains the status quo or one that aims to improve the quality of life for residents and attract new businesses.
"I think you’ll find that, yes, some communities are losing population," City Manager Jason Molino said after the draft plan was presented to the council. "They're not growing at great rates, but I think you’ll see that the communities that are well planned, and have good comprehensive plans that are practical, you’re going to see those communities are growing. They’re growing exponentially. They’re growing a lot faster than those who don’t (have comprehensive plans). I would argue that good planning leads to smart choices and that leads to positive outcomes.
"If we want to be mediocre forever then maybe we don’t do the comprehensive plan," Molino added. "If we want to achieve more, we take a community-based approach to it and you make smart choices in the future to trigger growth in the future."
Consultant Rob Holzman made the initial presentation of the plan. He reviewed the history of the process, which began in October 2015 and included the formation of a steering committee, interviews, focus groups, surveys and two community open houses where community members were invited in to share their vision for the future of the City of Batavia.
"This plan sets up a strong foundation for moving forward and understand what some of the basic investments are that are necessary to attract a younger population as well as a senior population," Holzman said.
Among the findings of the research that underlies the plan is that Batavia is seeing a decline in home ownership and a startling rise in rental occupancy.
"These are two characteristics that are worth noting because they’re really a driving impetus behind why you want this comprehensive planning process," Holzman said. "It's to figure out what’s going on and how some of these trends might be reversed."
The city is also overstocked in industrially zoned property. Industrial is the second highest acreage in the city of 14 types of zoning in Batavia, at 682 acres but only 169 acres are actually being used for industrial activity.
The plan suggests, Holzman said, that the city can direct more industrial uses in the area of the Harvester Center and the Pearl Street industrial park, both with significant vacancies, and rezone an area such as the east end of East Main Street.
The 70 to 90 properties in that area, with the exception of a cement company, are all commercial and residential, Holzman noted.
"It is a key gateway coming into the city," Holzman said. "It sets a tone for what to expect and having industrially zoned properties there might not be the best use of that transportation corridor."
Among the other suggestions for the Batavia of the future is the development of a complete street policy, which would include bike paths, bike racks at public facilities, signs providing distance and direction for destinations (wayfinding signage), and bus shelters that are attractive and may contain public art.
"Bus shelters might sound like a basic thing, and it is a basic thing, but it’s a necessary component to add to the vitality of a place," Holzman said.
The plan also suggests developing a tree management plan, a plan for parks and recreation, a plan to celebrate the city's history and its public spaces.
The plan also calls for changing the city's zoning code from the more highly regulated current form to what's known as "form-based" code, which more loosely defines appropriate uses for sections of the city.
When it came time for the council and the public to weigh in, there were some objections.
Councilwoman Kathy Briggs (later joined by community member John Roach) suggested that any suggestion that the east end of East Main Street be rezoned be removed from the plan. He insisted that the council already voted 6-3 against changing the zoning, therefore, it shouldn't be brought up again.
Molino explained that at this stage, the comprehensive plan is a roadmap. Implementation of actual zoning changes would come up later. Further, he noted, the council's previous vote was just on two parcels in the 70- to 90-acre area under consideration.
Roach suggested the proposal was just a backdoor way to bring in the tax-exempt, subsidized housing for disabled people proposed by DePaul earlier this year.
Councilman Bob Bialkowski objected to the idea of form-based code because, based on his research, he said, back before current zoning was created, something like form-based zoning was used and it only benefitted the well-heeled and politically connected.
Holzman tried to explain that form based means something entirely different today and that what the comprehensive plan proposes is really a mix of formed based structure and traditional zoning.
Councilman Adam Tabelski said he was concerned (a concern shared by other speakers) that the Tonawanda Creek is barely mentioned in the plan, even though it represents a potential resource for the city.
Molino said specific proposals for what might happen along the creek would fit into the city's strategic planning process, which he also spoke about and how it might change with a new comprehensive plan.
He provided the council with a document that he said would help officials and staff better prioritize projects, especially when new ideas come along.
"One thing when we began to develop this process, we realized that as new opportunities come along there has to be a very disciplined process to evaluate those," Molino said. "We have to decide whether it not happen, be put off, changed, or if more resources have to be put on the table to deal with them."