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November 12, 2018 - 8:40pm

Batavia should start pitching tents to help bring people back to Downtown

Downtown Batavia's future is not the mall; it's the open areas south of Main Street, suggests Tim Tielman, a preservationist and urban planner with a track record of success in Buffalo.

Jackson Street, Jackson Square, the south side of Main Street, are where we can find what's left of Batavia's vitality, Tielman said, in a recent interview with The Batavian. The mall, he said, is the last place Batavia should invest tax dollars.

"It's a continuing drag on Batavians, their creativity, their dynamism, their energy," Tielman said. "It's this energy sucking death star in the middle of the city, and you shouldn't spend any money making it a better death star."

We interviewed Tielman in advance of his talk this Wednesday night at 7 o'clock at GO ART! for The Landmark Society of Genesee County's annual meeting.

The topic: How Batavia gets its mojo back. 

Tielman's basic thesis is that Batavia was at its apex just after the end of the 19th century when the village, soon to become a city, had a robust, densely populated urban center with hundreds of businesses.

If that downtown, which was destroyed by urban renewal, still existed Tielman said, people from Rochester and Buffalo as well as the rest of the GLOW region would flock to Batavia every week for the small city experience.

Niagara on the Lake still has it. Batavia lost it. But, with effort, Batavia can get it back, but it will literally be a ground-up process, not a top-down, consultant-driven, developer-driven effort. Batavians have to do it for themselves. But Batavians are already pointing the way if city leaders will listen.

"There's obviously an innate human need for want of a better term, congenial spaces, in towns, cities, and villages, and even in times where they've been destroyed in war or urban renewal, people find them or build them," Tielman said. "What we see in Batavia is people have happened upon Jackson Square because it's a leftover thing that no one thought about and wasn't destroyed.

"The qualities of the thing as a physical space make it a very interesting case. You enter through a narrow passageway, and suddenly, totally unexpectedly, you come to a larger space, and even though it obviously wasn't designed with gathering in mind it has everything people want as a place to gather."

Jackson Square, Jackson Street, combined with the local businesses that still populate the business district on the south side of Main Street are strengths to build on, Tielman said. Batavia can leverage the density already found there and add to it.

But Tielman isn't an advocate of trying to lure developers with tax dollars to build big projects. He believes, primarily, in a more grassroots approach. 

The "death star," he said, and continuing efforts to deal with it, are part of the "urban renewal industrial complex," as he put it, and that failed approach should be avoided.

"The solutions (of urban renewal) are all the same," Tielman said. "It's like, 'let's put out an RFP, let's get some state money instead of saying', 'well, what do the Batavians need? What are they thirsty for? What are they dying for?' What you'll find is that Batavians are like every other group of homo sapiens on the face of the Earth. If they had their druthers, they'd want something within walking distance.

"They'd want to meet friends. They'd want to do stuff close at hand and in a way that they're not killed by vehicles careening down streets at 30 or 40 miles an hour. They want their kids to be safe. They don't want to worry about them being struck by a tractor-trailer when they're riding their bikes to the candy store."

That means, of course, narrowing Ellicott Street through Downtown, perhaps adding diagonal parking to Main Street, moving auto parking from out of the center of the city, particularly in the triangle between Jackson, Main and Ellicott, which Tielman sees as the most promising area of downtown to increase density first.

Batavians will need to decide for themselves what to do, but what he suggests is that the city makes it possible for the parking lot between Jackson and Court become one big mini-city, filled with tents and temporary structures and no parking.

"The rents for a temporary store or a tent or a stand or a hotdog cart should be low enough to allow a huge segment of the population (of Batavia) to experiment," Tielman said.

Low rents remove one of the biggest impediments to people starting a business and open up the experimental possibilities so that Batavians decide for themselves what they want downtown. 

"This gives Batavia the best chance to see, whether for a very low investment on a provisional basis, (if) this will work," Tielman said. "It's not sitting back for 10 years trying to concoct a real estate investment scheme based on some RFP to lure developers and give them handouts at tremendous public risk. The idea is lower the risk and do things the way successful places have done it for millennia."

That's how it worked for Canalside, one of the projects, besides Larkin Square, Tielman has helped get started in Buffalo. With Canalside, development started with tents and temporary vendors. Now the area is revitalized, and permanent structures are being erected. It's a Buffalo success story.

The idea of starting new business and community centers with tents and temporary structures is something Tielman suggested for Batavia's future when he spoke to the Landmark Society in 2013. He suggested then the major obstacle standing in the way of Batavia's economic vitality wasn't the mall, it is massive amounts of asphalt for parking -- economically unproductive and mostly unused.

While he likes the Ellicott Street project, primarily because of the 55 apartments being added to Downtown's housing stock but also because of the involvement of Sam Savarino who has been part of successful restoration projects in Buffalo, Tielman thinks the project needs to have "connective tissue" with everything on the north side of Ellicott Street.

That means narrowing Ellicott, adding wider, more pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, and slowing down truck traffic flowing through Downtown.

Any such plan would involve the state Department of Transportation but that, he said, is just a matter of the city being willing to stand up to the DOT and paying for its own maintenance of that stretch of Route 63.

"If the Batavia's really serious about fixing (Route 63), it should do it on its own dime," Tielman said.

As part of Tielman's suggestion to concentrate growth strategies on the south side of Main Street, Tielman agrees that the farmer's market, currently at Alva and Bank, should be moved to Jackson Street.

The current location is too far from the existing local businesses, so the tendency is for people to drive to Alva, park, shop and leave. The traffic being drawn downtown isn't staying downtown.

Tielman talked about contiguity, the quality of commercial spaces adjoining each other, being necessary for convenience of users and survival of businesses.

"Connective tissue," a phrase used several times by Tielman, is critical to city centers.

"Contiguity is the lifeblood of settlements of towns and of cities," Tielman said. "If left to their own devices, places will develop like this -- and you'll see this up to World War II -- whether they were European cities, Asian cities or American cities.

"Look at a (1918) map of Batavia, contiguity was everything," Tielman added. "In a town of 18,000 people you had four-story buildings. It's crazy, you would think, but (it was built up that way)  because (of) the distance from the train station to Main Street to the courthouse. That's where you wanted to be. Everyone's walking around."

People are social animals -- Tielman made this point several times -- and Batavians, if given a chance, will support a city center with more density, Tielman said because that's human nature. What exactly that looks like, that's up to Batavians, but creating that environment will give residents a stronger sense of community, more personal connections, and shared life experience. That will foster the community's creativity and vitality, which is better than just accepting decline.

"I mean, if you look at the great John Gardner," his formative years are "when Batavia was still a place where a young John Gardner could walk up the street, buy comic books, get into trouble over there by the railroad tracks, buy something for his mother on the way home, blah, blah, blah. He could have quite a day in town and encounter characters of different stripes that can actually (be worked) into pretty rich novels of American life. You wonder whether Batavia could produce a John Gardner today."

Tim Tielman has a lot more to say about Batavia getting its mojo back (this is condensed from an hour-long conversation). Go to GO ART! at 7 p.m. Wednesday to hear more about it, ask questions, even challenge his ideas.

 

Top: Use the slider on the map to compare Batavia of 1938 with Batavia of 2016.

Daniel Norstrand
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A rather glaring dichotomy to his points and concepts is climate. The pretty picture painted by the "expert" would be nice for the better part of 6 - 7 months of the year, and then... snow (or slush really). It would be nice to envision people scurrying about in a Bedford Falls daydream, but let's be real.
The "death star" of the whole performance is the lack of leadership in Batavia city government. The mall has been neglected to death by the very entity responsible for its existence. The city finally came to it's senses when they made a deal with the merchants in good faith. Now, because their estimate was too low, the black hole they created lingers another winter. The warm, open air environment that the mall could have been providing for the last 30+ years of neglect is allowed to continue. Shameful. What a fabulous thing to have in a place with such crappy winter weather! Once cleaned up it would be very akin to a biosphere in northern Alaska. The all weather, inviting atmosphere would be an attractive destination even to the benefit of the other downtown merchants as it would be a spot to duck into while shopping in inclement weather. Also people like to have a comfortable and safe place to walk in the winter. With an aging, warehoused population, this is no small point.
Opening the facade with new windows would go a long way to replacing the Attica prison look and help to enhance the "open airiness" from both inside and out. Making it actually inviting rather than repulsive.
The business of "tents" is a decent idea but I think that's already in place with the farmers market. Also I wonder if anyone on the merchants or government side of the "partnership" explored grants etc. for the roof? Including for solar installation.

Daniel Norstrand
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Sorry, it printed twice.

David Neth
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His ideas are exactly what Batavia needs! Sure, the weather is an issue, however, as it says right in the article, a similar model worked at Canalside in Buffalo (which is brutal in the winter months, being right on the water), so weather wouldn't be too much of a deterrent. I wish I could make it to his talk on Wednesday.

Michael Peet
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I agree that his ideas could improve downtown batavia but i fell like i have to point out if we turn one or more parking lots into shopping plazas we would eventually not have enough parking for people that have or choose to drive into downtown batavia. That could cause some people to not come to downtown batavia if there was a serious lack of parking. If any of his ideas are implemented in downtown batavia there should be an effort to make sure we don't decrease available parking as the number of visitors increases.

Daniel Norstrand
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Apples and oranges David. The Canalside project has many advantages with which Batavia cannot compete, even on scale. Waterfront redevelopment has been extremely successful across the nation and around the world because people naturally gravitate to waterfronts. That's why businesses build there. The Sabers are a large draw during the winter months giving a very heavy economic boost to combat the naturally negative effects of the weather. The Naval museum is also a large draw. And the fact that the area was extremely polluted made government funding and backing readily available. As well as very cheap electric from The Niagara falls Power Authority.

Howard B. Owens
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The nice thing about tents and temporary structures, they can come down in the winter.

Parking is wasted space. If economic activity warrants after a time, a parking garage could be built (by a private business).

There wasn’t a canal and even worse weather in Batavia in 1925. As Tim points out, human nature hasn’t changed, and but of course, there’s has always been naysayers, but then they’re not the ones who pioneered, built the country while the naysayers stayed behind.

Howard B. Owens
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The nice thing about tents and temporary structures, they can come down in the winter.

Parking is wasted space. If economic activity warrants after a time, a parking garage could be built (by a private business).

There wasn’t a canal and even worse weather in Batavia in 1925. As Tim points out, human nature hasn’t changed, and but of course, there’s has always been naysayers, but then they’re not the ones who pioneered, built the country while the naysayers stayed behind.

Daniel Norstrand
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Parking is wasted space until it's a pain to find a place to park. Coupled with the pain inflicted by the bottle neck Batavia already is to traffic it will be another reason to go the other way.

David Neth
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When finding parking in Batavia becomes an issue, the city will be so prosperous that there will be money to find a solution. Until then, the excessive parking is a waste of space. Tim says that we should focus on the south side of Main Street, specifically between Jackson and Court Streets, which means that all of that parking between Main and Alva next to the mall will still be available and will actually be a shorter walk than the end of the Walmart parking lot to the store. There is ample street parking near downtown Batavia. Heaven forbid people actually get out of their cars and see what downtown has to offer. Walkability, in my opinion, is essentially what Tim is indicating.

John Roach
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To eliminate parking between Jackson and Court Street would help kill off Save A Lot and the businesses on Jackson Street. And that is where some people park (with permit) that live in the adjacent apartments.

David Neth
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John, I disagree that it would kill off Save A Lot and the business on Jackson. I think if anything, it'll help boost those businesses, especially with the Save A Lot redevelopment coming. Parking for the apartments on Jackson might be an issue, but as Howard pointed out, the tents are temporary and can be moved at the end of the night when residents return home, just like the farmer's market disassembles each day.

John Roach
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David, where would people park to shop at Save A Lot, or to go M&T or Key Bank or Alberty's And people park there for the Dry Cleaners and to go to the County Bld (mostley the DMV)?

Howard B. Owens
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John, you should have been at GO Art tonight.

John Roach
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Howard, wish I could have, but had another meeting. From that meeting, can you tell us where people would park that now use the lot where Save A Lot is?

David Neth
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There is plenty of street parking, as well as the whole parking lot behind Angotti's.

John Roach
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Dave, I do not think people will want to park over near O'Lacy's to go shop at Save A Lot or to go to the Banks. People like parking as close as they can be to where they are going, especially in lousy weather.

Howard B. Owens
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People will park where they have to park to get to where they need to go.

One of the things about hearing Tim talk on the subject is he's able to provide ample evidence that we don't need all this parking. Communities all over the world, including in New York, get by with much less.

Vibrant city centers, or village centers for that matter ( and in New York, villages couldn't get urban renewal funds so they weren't destroyed by the misplaced notion of turning them into suburbs ), are vibrant because of foot traffic, not car traffic.

People go where there are interesting and useful things and where there are other people even if that means walking.

I'd be curious to know, BTW, how much of Save-A-Lot's traffic now is foot traffic. As I remember it, part of the attraction to the location for the owners was the proximity to lower-income neighborhoods in walking distance.

John Roach
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Hard to tell about foot traffic to that store. I'd guess about 10-15%, which is high really. But I also think that has more to do with the lack of a car than wanting to walk over there..

Howard B. Owens
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Happy birthday, John.

John Roach
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Thanks

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