Debate over Engine House redevelopment proposal reveals frustration, confusion
Batavia City Council members on Monday night voted to set a public hearing for the application of a $1 million grant to redevelop the vacant Genesee County-owned Old Engine House on Main Street but several of them did so with a bad taste in their mouths.
Council members Robert Bialkowski and Rose Mary Christian questioned the process -- "this came out of the blue," Christian said -- while Kathleen Briggs sought clarification on the county's role in the matter and Al McGinnis said the City should be looking at providing more single-family homes.
All in all, the debate at times revealed the board's misinterpretation of and confusion over the proposal to let developer Thompson Builds of Byron turn the former restaurant (and historic building) into a commercial-residential building.
Christian said she was aggravated by "nonprofits that don't pay any property taxes and school taxes, and that I had to read (about this) in the paper before we knew about it."
Council President Eugene Jankowski corrected her, stating that the grant is "pass-through money" and doesn't come from city coffers -- and that the project puts the property "back on the tax rolls."
Molino pointed out that the Restore New York Communities Initiative grant has to be applied for by a city, town or village, but Briggs still wondered "why the county doesn't do something about it?"
To which, Molino replied, "I think they are ... they're disposing of it (by declaring it as surplus property) and putting in back on the tax rolls."
That prompted McGinnis' comment about the City needing "to concentrate our efforts" on single-family homes, and Bialkowski stating he had problems with the process.
"I didn't know about it until reading it (in local media) and I have not seen an RFP (request for proposal)," Bialkowski said.
He also questioned how Thompson Builds was selected and that he felt rushed into having to set a public hearing on the same night as Council's first discussion about it.
His comments prompted Molino to apologize, but the City Manager noted that his Nov. 22 memo to Council was "in the media packet" and he didn't have any control as to when it would be published.
"Also, the county doesn't have to dispose of public property through an RFP," he said.
The plan outlined by Molino, after discussions with the Batavia Development Corporation, Genesee County and Thompson Builds, is to convert the 14,425-square-foot buildilng for business use on the first floor and residential use on the second floor.
The project is in line with current zoning code.
"Mixed use (Commercial-Residential) is part of the planning processes that we have had for downtown property, and we have a developer that is interested in rehabiliating it," Molino said.
He also said that there is a huge demand for downtown apartments and that the project would have to go through all "proper approvals," including planning boards and the Historic Preservation Commission.
Council members John Canale and Patti Pacino backed up Molino's contention regarding the demand for living space, with Canale talking about the lack of "places to rent at a reasonable price range" and Pacino noting that there is a "whole generation (millennials) that we're trying to attract back to Batavia -- young teachers, professionals ... who aren't ready to buy a house."
Bialkowski said he was surprised that no one from Genesee County was at the meeting.
"The county is asking the city to give them $1 million so why don't they have someone here?" he said.
To which, Councilman Adam Tabelski countered with the fact the city has the opportunity "to team with the county and a private developer to make that (putting it back on the tax rolls) happen."
After Jankowski again said that state regulations require the City to apply for the grant and schedule a public hearing, Bialkowski still wasn't convinced.
"We're applying for the grant, and the county is getting a million dollars," he said.
Molino said that the money would go to Thompson Builds to help fund the $2.5 million project, prompting Bialkowski to say, "so we're giving it to the developer."
Jankowski tried to put the whole matter into perspective.
"The benefit is that we're taking surplus property and putting it back on the tax rolls," he said, moments before all council members voted to schedule the public hearing for 5 p.m. Dec. 4.
There was a lot of discontent by many Council members that they had to find out about this project in the media.Clearly, the Manager had been working on this for awhile and kept Council in the dark.
Also not answered was how was this developer was selected? Did the City Manager reach out to him? Or did the Genesee County Manager reach out to him? Did the developer call Mr. Molino and just say "you get me a million dollars and I'll do the project"?
Was this put out to bid and if so, what were the other bids? All we know right now is that the developer did the work on the old Carr's warehouse and Mr. Molino liked them.
Hopefully on December 4th, at the Public Hearing on this, we will get our answers.
Sounds, once again, like nitpicking on the negatives while ignoring the positives, trying to find a flaw so as to oppose the city moving forward and improving.
More modern office space, more apartments close to downtown, property returned to private ownership. And all the city has to do is act as a pass-through agency for a grant. Sounds like a win to me.
Howard, not at all. That the building was going to be on the market has been known for a long time. The project itself sounds good and while there is no guarantee the City will get the grant, I am glad they will try. And, I fully understand why the City has to do it and not the County, which owns the building.
But, for City Council members to first find out about this from the media is not right. If it was only one member you could say, well you just missed the memo. But at least 6 have said they did not know about this ahead of time. And, it is not the first time this has happened.
"...the City Manager noted that his Nov. 22 memo to Council was 'in the media packet' " ...
-- which is also known as an agenda packet, which goes to COUNCIL MEMBERS AND the media. Granted Nov. 22 isn't a lot of "heads up" notice, but council members should familiarize themselves with the agenda materials in those packets BEFORE the meeting.
Another mystery. The Manager said it went out, but 6 did not see it.
John, then there's some explaining to do. Why would those documents be put in some envelopes and not others? Surely, someone didn't put the documents in the packets for the media, and not include them in the packets set aside for council members?...
Another question is that why was this not brought to the attention of Council before this? Clearly this has been in the works for awhile, but Council was kept in the dark. To line up a developer, research that the grant is out there and that the County would be on board had to be done long before the 22nd.
It’s a county building so they take the lead. We assisted when the grant was identified and the county needed our help to apply. Just like we needed the county’s help to apply for the ellicott trail project. Working together is what we do for the greater good of the community. The city manager explained it thoughly last night. The grant is very narrow in scope and is by invitation only. At the county’s request the manager asked for an invitation. When the invitation came through, Council was brought in to do their part to make the application. How the county picks their developers is a question they can answer and not city council business. The city and the county have a very good working relationship and I trust they are following the law until proven otherwise. There are many checks and balances in the process.
The city manager notified council in a timely manor but when I asked around I found that due to the holiday we all delayed in looking at out packet. I
Was guilty of delay myself. Looking at my packet it’s apparent the info arrived at my house long before it appeared in the newspaper.
Yea, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Veterans Day, etc., those sneak up on you every year, year in and year out. As Bruno Mars says: "Keep up!"
Thanks for the update, Geno.