A high-profile project in downtown Batavia is up for discussion again.
The city's Community Development Committee on Tuesday will review and then possibly take action on the variance to allow the new proposed Batavia Walgreens to be set back more than 10 feet from Wilson Street. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. Sept. 11 at Batavia City Hall, 100 N. Island Ave.
This vote is a continuation of the formal process that began in February for city and Batavia City Council approval of the project. This is not the final step for the project, but one in a series of votes and discussions that must take place for final approval.
Walgreens wants to have a bigger location downtown, so they and Batavia Enterprises propose to build the store on the site of the former Prairie Path Cycles/Swanson's Hardware site at 122 W. Wilson St. The new store would offer more services, such as fresh food and a drive-through pharmacy.
This project was applauded by some residents and rejected by others when it first came to the Zoning Board of Appeals in February. Opponents did not like the idea of another drive-through in the downtown and said that Batavia should not bow to Walgreens corporate demands.
The city recommends approval of the variance to the setback requirement, but only with conditions to make up for the distance. Examples include enhancing the original plaza connection on the project's east side, or inclusion of the original proposed solid wall along the property line (see photos on this page).
The city staff recommendation was initially against the proposed setback for Walgreens, but they have since reconsidered their position.
"Staff’s professional perspective is that the downtown is bigger than one store or one lot, and that our sense of place is stronger than being defined by one lot or building," said City Administrator Bill McGrath, in a Sept. 7 memo to the Community Development Committee. "The issue to consider is whether or not the downtown would be seriously impacted by a Walgreens not located on the street, or whether it would be benefited by a more convenient and productive facility despite its location?"
City Explains Itself
In the five-page Sept. 7 memo, McGrath provides more details about why city staff had a change of heart about the setback. Here is a summary of the 7 points raised:
1. First test of the new code provision
Staff said a variance request for a setback is appropriate for the downtown area, given the fact that Batavia is a river town and has a diverse topography.
"… the very existence of variances in the State statutes, and reflected in our own Code, acknowledges the realities that zoning regulations are not always one-size fits all, that there are times for exceptions," McGrath wrote.
2. Lack of streetwall on West Wilson
The memo acknowledges what the residents have brought up before—only one building on either side complies with the current setback provision.
"The substitution of a new building built to the street will not significantly add nor take away from the overall quality of the pedestrian experience in that block, not add or take away from the pedestrian experience had in our important historical street wall areas, being North River Street, and the 1 block of Wilson on either side of the River," the memo said.
3. Suburban versus Urban Environment
Staff acknowledges that Batavia is more of a pedestrian-oriented community than an actual pedestrian-oriented downtown.
"The fact is that the vast majority of our citizens live outside a reasonable walking (or biking or blading or boarding) distance from the downtown," McGrath wrote. "It will be a long time before we do not have to accommodate motor vehicles … Thus we have to accommodate many of our community members accessing the central business area by car at least for now."
4. Downtown as a center of commerce
Walgreens is the only pharmacy in the downtown area, and serves residents as well as the many visitors who pass through downtown every day.
Wilson Street carried 24,000 vehicles per day at its peak prior to bridge construction, according to the memo.
"Walgreens is not as vehicle-oriented as McDonald's is, but both businesses are major attractors, perhaps the two top attractors to the downtown from the Batavia community and beyond, thus critical presences in downtown," the memo said.
5. The economic value of a new Walgreens
Walgreens expects its pharmacy sales to increase by 25 percent with the addition of the drive-through and other features. Even if Batavia doesn't see all the tax dollars from the pharmacy sales, staff reasons that the new store will still see foot traffic tied to other businesses downtown.
"It is common knowledge that there are many trips to Walgreens that are tied to trips to Panera, Daddio’s, the hair salon and vice-versa," the memo said.
This point touches on the next topic in the memo, which is …
6. The indirect impacts of a new Walgreens building
The memo calls Walgreens "the anchor of a major center in need of updating." The hope is that the new building will add pressure to upgrade the rest of the site in order to attract quality businesses to the vacated space.
7. Anticipated low cost of public assistance
Although initial Batavia Enterprises presentations on this project referenced applying for tax increment finance (TIF) funds, city staff does not expect significant public financial assistance for this project.
"Aside from the transfer of the property, for which State statute requires appropriate compensation, a full TIF analysis is required, and no financial information has been offered to date," the memo said.
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Read our previous story on the status of the Batavia Walgreens project. Click the link, scroll to the bottom and see the section "Working With Walgreens."