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Batavia can regain its economic vitality by rebuilding its small business core downtown

By Howard B. Owens

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."


Dave Olsen

"He suggested the Genesse County Economic Development Center has it's economic development priorities backwards. "

He'll never be invited back again.

Nov 7, 2013, 11:22am Permalink
Mark Potwora

I think what he said is allready known by all..Without downtown growth you have no city.He is telling us nothing new..Seems like his only idea was to use the GCEDC for retail........He concluded Batavia isn't a very attractive place to be. There's no signs of life. There's no economic vibrancy.......Then what have we been paying $65,000 a year for an economic developer for, the last couple of years..Why is there a BID director...

Nov 7, 2013, 12:39pm Permalink

Forgive me, but I'm still a bit leery....I can remember being told in the early 70's, that urban renewal was the future. Well, this is the future...... how'd that work out for ya?

Nov 7, 2013, 2:06pm Permalink
Jim Rosenbeck

So. Joni Mitchell was right? They paved paradise and put up a parking lot...and dumpster enclosures? I think so. Add to that, the panoramic view of government owned buildings in various states of utilization that one gets from the stoplight at the post office and it is no wonder that downtown is less than vibrant. Government buildings close at 5 PM and parking lots sit empty. If people are living downtown, they are shopping downtown and recreating downtown. Mr. Tielman is right when he says "dense cities, dense streets create economic activity".

Nov 7, 2013, 3:54pm Permalink
Bea McManis

**** gargles and puts on tap shoes for the same old song and dance*** we do not want to accept failure, but once burned by the city fathers and a group of LOCAL business people, who had little compassion for the small shop owners - their neighbors - the restaurant owners, the displaced apartment dwellers, and the general public while some lined their pockets as the rest of us looked on in horror as building after building fell to the wrecking ball, we are far more cautious. Mr. Tielman is not offering a new look at our 50 year old nightmare. He does validate what most of us saw from day one. I stress the word LOCAL because it was these people, trusted by the city residents, who betrayed us. Yes, bring back a vibrant Batavia, but it will never begin to repair the damage done to those who lost their shops, offices, restaurants, and homes. Who will the residents trust this time?

Nov 7, 2013, 4:47pm Permalink
Brian Graz

"If they see glum people on the streets, or worse, no people on the streets... "

IMO the place to start to revive Batavia would be to downsize the disproportionate # of entitlement crowd inhabitants that have been migrating to the area for some time, and are the largest element that one observes when driving thru Batavia everyday. NYS is the welfare capitol, and I hear it said often that Genesee County [Batavia being the hub] is one of the easiest/best places to live for someone whose chosen occupation is receiving public assistance.

Nov 7, 2013, 7:34pm Permalink
Jerry Buckman

When downtown is rebuilt and the parking lots are gone, should horse watering troughs and hitching posts be added too? At best, downtown Batavia can be turned into a quaint, "touristy" place. The masses will never again return to downtown to purchase things they need. Yes, it sucks. Knock the old mall down and add some brick sidewalks and old-fashioned gas streetlights. Anyone who wants to resurrect the 1930's and 40's will have the same fate as a dog chasing a parked car.

There are never any new arguments to help this subject when it periodically comes up.

Nov 8, 2013, 11:19am Permalink
Frank Bartholomew

Bea, if they had left Batavia alone, they would already have what this Mr.
Tielman is suggesting. I moved to Colorado in 1969, and returned in 71,
Talk about shock, I was sick to my stomach when I saw what they had done.

Nov 8, 2013, 3:42pm Permalink
Paula Ferraro

I don't know what the answer is but I don't think you can compare today's economy and community's wants/needs to 1934. In that era there was 20% unemployment, 40% of families lived in single family houses and the rest lived in apartments and multi-family homes. Only 40% of families owned ONE car, 2% owned 2. So of course there were lots of pedestrians! I know nothing of economics or urban development but I do know I have 4 cars in my driveway and only 3 of us drive. We walk nowhere. I like the parking lots in downtown Batavia. I am confident I will find a place to park and have a short walk to where I want to go. There may be "successes" in other places but I am reluctant to go there. Finding a place to park is a crap shoot and you better be willing to walk a distance in all kinds of weather. Furthermore, the downtown parking lots are utilized for many large events that bring the community together. We can't compare how we live now with 1934. Times have changed, technology has changed, families have changed.

Nov 8, 2013, 9:38pm Permalink
Kyle Slocum

Tielman is half right. Encouraging small business, with all its variation and vibrancy is exactly what should be the focus of economic development. Killing off parking and forcing "density" as public policy is as asinine as tearing down the business district and building the "prison" on Main Street was back in the seventies.

The redesign of the "prison" (and the re-purposing of some of it for municipal use) has made a great improvement on the visuals and the likelihood of attracting foot traffic and business to that sad legacy of progressive ideas.

Today, in areas other than urban anthills, people expect to be able park their cars near to where they will be shopping. There is no bus or subway. We have A taxi cab here. And, that is due to the free market, not crony capitalist government regulation. Small cities don't have enough money to waste on unprofitable "public transportation" schemes like big cities can subsidize with tax revenues. That is a huge variable that is being missed by Tielman.

Relying on the few thousand residents of a small city to be a) Interested in your merchandise and b) Willing to walk to your store because there is no parking, is idiocy. I have a small store in a small town that has customers who drive in from two counties away just to do business with us. That is the power of small business. Tielman gets that part.

What he does not get is that life is different in urban anthills than it is in the vast spaces of America. He should keep in mind that there are some things that are so ridiculous, only an urban planner can believe them. Parking is key to foot traffic in your store when you don't exist in an urban anthill. The Metro isn't here; and if it was, not enough people would use it to keep it in operation. One size never fits all.

Sometimes we can fool ourselves by thinking that what we know can work in one situation is a universal law, not a localized solution.

Nov 8, 2013, 9:49pm Permalink

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