Batavia sees an ‘Opportunity’

City leaders have audacious plan for major redevelopment in downtown area
By Joanne Beck of The Daily News

BATAVIA — City leaders have some pretty big plans that will require time, money, serious interest from developers and grant funding.

If all gets done, a portion of City Centre would come down, Jackson Street would be extended north, there would be more mixed use sites at the Della Penna and Harvester Avenue business properties and, overall, underutilized sites would get an aesthetic overhaul.

It’s an audacious plan, but at least it’s a starting point, City Manager Jason Molino says.

“One year from today you’ll have four new apartments in the Carr’s warehouse building that will be rented … you’ll have hopefully either some construction beginning or remediation beginning or plans to begin at the Della Penna building, and hopefully we’re in a place where we’re progressing in our discussion with merchants and the downtown owners of the downtown site, as well as at Harvester Center,” Molino said during a presentation Tuesday at The Daily News.

“I think in a one- to three-year mark from now you’ll see probably the most redevelopment happen in downtown, absent of Bank of Castile being built, since Urban Renewal. That’s exciting too.”

These plans stemmed from a 2010 grant to flesh out an economic strategy for underutilized properties in the city. Borrowed from the name Brownfield Opportunity Area, which focuses on vacant, defunct and sometimes environmentally unsound properties, the city has the Batavia Opportunity Areas project.

The goal is to identify the most important parcels in need of help but with capacity to be valuable. That was part of the first two steps of the state program. First there was a prenomination step to do research and studies to help identify viable properties, followed by nominating them to the state for grant funding. The final phase is to implement the plan.

It’s the first “real economic strategy” for the city in a long time, Molino said.

“These are the areas we want to focus on and this is where we want to move. I think it’s exciting,” he said.

The BOA consists of 366 acres of historic, commercial and industrial sites. A Steering Committee of city, county and state leaders includes Molino, Planning Board Chairman Edward Jones, Business Improvement District Executive Director Don Burkel, Economic Development Coordinator Julie Pacatte, Genesee County Chamber of Commerce President Lynn Freeman, county planner Jill Babinski and Julie Sweet of New York State Department of State and Bart Putzig of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

One of the properties is well on its way, Pacatte said. The former Carr’s warehouse just received preliminary approval for a National Grid reimbursement grant and the Batavia Development Corp. is close to transferring the title of that property to Paul Thompson of Byron and his company, 13 Jackson Square LLC. Genesee County Economic Development Center has already approved a low-interest loan of $100,000 for the renovation project.

Next up is the Della Penna property wedged between Ellicott and Evans streets. The city is in progress with foreclosure proceedings and has put out a request for proposal seeking developers. They’ve got until Sept. 16 to submit a plan for consideration.

The city’s plan is to repurpose most of the existing Della Penna buildings, which have been determined to be structurally sound. A portion of one building would be demolished as the property is prepared for office and mixed use. There would also be a streetwall of trees to bring the road closer to the buildings. Remediation would have to be done to do some ground clean-up, Pacatte said.

These types of sites get “extra points” from the state for their goals to clean up the environmental mess left behind by former businesses. Those points come in handy when applying for state grants, she said.

“If we can get more grant money, we can peel back another layer of the onion so the developer can understand what he’s getting into,” she said. “It’s a tricky thing.”

Another project focuses on the ice arena and areas behind the county courthouse. That would leave current greenspace intact to serve as a nice outdoor spot for an ampitheater or pavilion.

A new fieldhouse, that some developer will hopefully want to build, would be next to the arena. This plan corrects some of the circulation issues behind the courthouse, she said. Sporadic parking and the nearby creek make for “a funky underutilized area.” There would be access for canoes and kayaks and potentially a bridge built over the creek to connect the bike trail that is in progress.

Over on Harvester are other commercial properties to be reworked into office, residential and warehouse space. Plans call for considerable demolition of buildings, as only 400,000 square feet is usable out of 800,000 square feet. Property owner Tom Mancuso of Mancuso Business Group has been involved in the plans and has agreed with proposed changes there, Pacatte said.

“One of the perceptions is that there are some very dark corners in this property,” she said. “We want to open it up some so it’s more inviting and friendly and clean and fresh, so you can get some more daylight into the property.”

The Steering Committee may also like to see the establishment of a brew pub in the area, she said.

Perceived as the most challenging project, City Centre has many players involved. It is the one site where there are several individual property owners, and all under one roof.

A medical corridor would be carved out and expanded in the area to the right of City Centre while Jackson Street would be extended into the parking lot on Main Street. Part of Cary Hall would be demolished to make room for a ground floor retail area with a shoe or uniform store or place to sell health care apparatus.

The Centre construction would affect Zip-Tor, Hillside, the former Homestead Event Centre, three doctors’ offices, rural housing and a yoga studio. Center Stage Dance Studio and Miracle Ear are already in progress with moving elsewhere, Pacatte said.

All merchants involved have shown interest in the plan, Molino said.

“There’s a warm reception, they want to understand all of the details,” he said.

The renovation would bring customers right to J.C. Penney when they walk into the main entrance. The former Gentleman Jim’s restaurant would be to the left and Pacatte would like to see something happening at that site. Perhaps a Bath & Body Works or other similar business, she said.

As for ongoing litigation with mall merchants, this plan does not change that, Molino said. City staff continues to be in discussion with the Merchants Association and hopefully there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, he said. A lawsuit has been ongoing for years now, with each the city and merchants wanting the other to pay for big repairs such as the roof.

“This has been a challenge, especially with the absence of a plan,” he said. “Before, when you don’t have a vision, it’s easy to point fingers. It takes time to build a relationship. We’re going to have to work at it.”

Other possibilities are a boutique hotel in the downtown area and hydro, wind, solar or geothermal capabilities for any of the projects.

City staff has invited developers from Western New York to take tours of these sites to generate some interest. City Council is expected to vote on a final plan by late October.

Batavia Development Corp. applied for a $2.7 million grant for a “greener cleaner Batavia” to put towards remediation efforts, with the intention to “move some of these projects forward,” Pacatte said.

She should get an answer by November or December.

For more information about this project, go to www.batavianewyork.com and click on Batavia Opportunity Areas.