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urban renewal

November 12, 2018 - 8:40pm

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.

May 13, 2012 - 1:01pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in history, photos, urban renewal, dowtown.

A few weeks ago, we ran pictures of the destruction of Downtown Batavia by local photographer Antoinette Dempski. That prompted Todd Jantzi to share these photos with me. Jantzi owns Bontrager's and came across two sets of photos in a box of auction items. He gave one set to the Holland Land Office Museum and kept the other for himself. He doesn't know who the photographer was.

April 11, 2012 - 9:31pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in batavia, downtown, urban renewal.

With some stunning clouds in the sky late this afternoon, I couldn't resist going for a drive and gravitated, as I often do, toward Creek Road in the Town of Batavia.

When I stopped to take some pictures of cows on the property of Baskin Livestock (bottom photo), a car pulled alongside my spot on the shoulder of the road and the driver asked what I was doing. 

"I'm taking some pictures," I said.

"Why?" she asked.

"Because it's what I like to do."

She said, "I used to take pictures and I would develop the film myself."

As we talked, she told me she had some pictures of the Liberty National Bank in the city being demolished. I told her I would like to see them, so she said she would try to find them and invited me to her house.

And so I met Andrew and Antoinette Dempski, decades-long residents of Creek Road.

"I always had a good eye for photography," Antoinette told me, and the photos of her children when they were much younger were much better than typical family snapshots. She had a real artistic flare.

"My father carried a camera with him where ever he went," she said.

He was a Polish veteran of World War I who moved to Buffalo and went to work for the city's sanitation department. The lingering effect of mustard gas, she explained, would sometimes make him a little crazy.

Unfortunately, on the day her mother was buried, somebody broke into her Buffalo home and stole all of her father's photographs, including pictures of her growing up, such as graduation and First Communion photos.

Antoinette was born in Buffalo and her husband, Andrew, was born on Old Creek Road. 

Andrew drew my attention -- not that I could have missed it -- to a gorgeous portrait hanging on their living room wall of a young and fetching Antoinette drawn by an artist from Quebec.

As for Antoinette's pictures, they were taken with an Kodak camera and a professor at Genesee Community College let her use the darkroom there.

"Those kids had expensive cameras and I just had my box camera, but I had a better eye," she said.

And that's no doubt true.

Alas, and sadly, Antoinette would not let me take her picture, though I'm sure it would have been a lovely portrait.

And below, the results of my attempt to take a cow picture:

April 25, 2011 - 2:15pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in batavia, downtown, urban renewal.

A young C.M. Barons -- regular contributor to The Batavian and former State Assembly candidate -- was a journalism student at GCC when the north side of Main Street, Batavia, was demolished to make way for the Genesee Country Mall.

Over the weekend, Barons found his old photos for a story he did in college.

The bottom photo is of David J. Gordon, who was the urban renewal planner in charge of the project. Barons sent it along in case anybody needed new dart board material.

March 14, 2010 - 1:08pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in batavia, downtown, video, urban renewal.

David Meyer posted a link to this video. He said his brother found it somehow. David wrote, "I wish we could go back."

March 13, 2010 - 7:09am
posted by Dave Meyer in batavia, urban renewal.

I don't know where he found it, but my brother sent me this link to a slide show that has pictures of downtown before the dreaded 'Urban Renewal'

I wish we could go back.

www.onetruemedia.com/shared

April 4, 2009 - 5:18pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in batavia, mall, urban renewal.

I wish I could find David J. Gordon, if he's still alive, and interview him. On video would be especially good. I wonder if he would squirm at all?

Gordon is the City of Batavia's former Director or Urban Renewal.  If there is one single person responsible for tearing down half of downtown Batavia and building that brutal mall, it is Gordon.

We could give Gordon his due and excuse his enthusiasm for destruction and reconstruction to youthful folly and the trends of the time. Or could we see him as a locus for change that not many Batavian's wanted (it's very hard to find any long-time residents who say they support (or should I say, "admit" that they supported) the city's decision at the time).

C.M. Barons, loyal reader and commentor on The Batavian, interviewed Gordon in 1973. He e-mailed me a copy of the article.

Reading the Q&A is nothing less than infuriating.

Gordon started his young adult life pursuing study in social sciences and then flirted with becoming a priest, but wound up in Washington, D.C. where he got involved in urban renewal, a particularly flatulent excess of federal largess aimed at destroying city blocks and replacing them with anything, anything at all.

Urban renewal was all the rage in the 1960s and 1970s.

Wikipedia:

Urban renewal is extremely controversial, and typically involves the destruction of businesses, the relocation of people, and the use of eminent domain as a legal instrument to reclaim private property for city-initiated development projects.

In the second half of the 20th century, renewal often resulted in the creation of urban sprawl and vast areas of cities being demolished ... 

Urban renewal's effect on actual revitalization is a subject of intense debate. It is seen by proponents as an economic engine, and by opponents as a regressive mechanism for enriching the wealthy at the expense of taxpayers and the poor. It carries a high cost to existing communities, and in many cases resulted in the destruction of vibrant—if run-down —neighborhoods.

If you're a fan of The Kinks, you might be familiar with the 1971 album Muswell Hillbillies, which was Ray Davies scathing and often witty polemic against urban renewal. Long before I came to Batavia, it was one of my favorite LPs. Now it often strikes me as especially poignant.

I got a letter this morning with serious news that's gone and ruined my day,
The borough surveyor's used compulsory purchase to acquire my domain,
They're gonna pull up the floors, they're gonna knock down the walls,
They're gonna dig up the drains.

Here come the people in grey they're gonna take me away to lord knows where,
But I'm so unprepared I got no time to pack and I got nothing to wear,
Here come the people in grey,
To take me away.

Gordon was very much one of those people in grey, judging from the picture with Barons' article and his attitude toward the city that was nothing more than another notch on his resume.

At the heart of the article is Gordon's complete lack of respect for the small business owner. Without that respect, it is easy to see why he had no qualms about dislocating businesses that had operated in the same locations for decades.

What I think personally and I was brought up in a small business man's type home -- I'm talking experience not theory, is that unfortunately business has become that which is owned by bigger and bigger conglomerates. The day of the small business, I'm sorry to say, has become more and more a less intricate part of the American scene. It's another one of the changing aspects, one of the reasons, and there are many, that in the old days when a man ran a business he whole family went in there and helped him. His wife went in there and more important -- his kid. But today his kid wants to go to college and rightly so. And he wants the 35 or 40 hour work week with fringe benefits and vacations; he doesn't want to work all hours of the day as he did before. The small business can't compete (for labor) with the fringe benefits offered by the larger companies.

As a Brit like Ray Davies might say, "What rubbish."

I, too, grew up in a "small business man's type home" and my decision not to become a baker had nothing to do with an unwillingness to work hard and put in long hours, or a desire to seek fringe benefits. I simply preferred to pursue a life involving words and thought (I set out to be a writer) rather than dough and icing.  It's impossible to pigeon hole the mass of humanity as nothing but 40-hour-week seekers. Some people have the entrepreneurial drive and some don't, and we need communities that meet the needs of both types of people.  Gordon's statement strikes me as rather myopic.

There are a number of family owned businesses in Genesee County, many of them in their second and third generations of ownership.  The family-owned business never went out of style.  There have always been people more interested in working for a family owned business rather than a conglomerate, fringe benefits or not.  There's more to a good work life than an extra week of vacation. Gordon's assertions were based neither on experience nor theory, but merely wishful thinking.

Prophetically, with a bit of wisdom Gordon may not have realized he possessed, he did note how important a strong downtown is to a vibrant community.

Remember this is a big tax producing basis for the city -- the business district. If the business district goes to hell, the economics of this town go to hell.

I shared Barons' article with Batavia loyalist Bill Kauffman, who's anti-urban renewal writing is known the nation over. Bill's response: "The arrogant bastards who knocked down Old Batavia ought to have been tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail back to whatever unplace they came from."

Fortunately, whatever damage the bastards who tore down Old Batavia did to the business community, it is receding ever more into history as the local business community recovers. It didn't really take another government program, either, to turn things around. It is a combination of community effort and free enterprise, good small-town American values. It is a credit to the local merchants (which includes businesses in the mall) and property owners who have stuck with downtown and formed the Business Improvement District.  The BID has made great strides in revitalizing downtown, and the work continues.  Downtown Batavia's success is important for the entire community (at least Gordon got that much right). It sets the tone and the pace for the rest of the county.  The folly of David J. Gordon aside, there is no reason Downtown can't thrive for decades to come.

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