The future of the downtown Batavia Walgreens is still up in the air.
After a public hearing on Wednesday at Batavia City Hall that lasted about three-and-a-half hours, the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals did not take a binding vote on one of the exceptions to the Zoning Code needed to build a new Walgreens.
What the Zoning Board did do was take a non-binding straw poll that revealed at this time how they feel about the exception, which is a Walgreens storefront setback of more than 77 ft. from Wilson Street. The vote was 4-3 in favor of recommending the exception, or variance.
“I like the plan…. I know it’s not up to what we expect, but maybe what we expect is impractical in today’s car-driven world,” said Zoning Board member Ed Weiss.
Other Board members disagreed, citing a lack of time spent with the proposal. Karen Kosky, board vice-chair, was not in favor of the variance.
“We need to be patient,” Kosky said. “I don’t want to act out of panic.”
The Board will take up the issue again in March, where they will have to adopt a group of required findings before they finally vote on a recommendation.
The Zoning Board’s vote will be just one in a series of votes leading to a final City Council decision on the Walgreens plan. The proposal is to move Walgreens to a new 14,490 sq. ft. store at 122 W. Wilson St., just across the way from its current location at 138 W. Wilson St. in Batavia Plaza.
Batavia Enterprises Inc. has worked for two years on and off with city staff on the Walgreens proposal. The current proposal requires a series of exceptions, or variances, to be approved before construction can begin.
The Zoning Board focused on the setback variance on Wednesday. In a Feb. 17 memo to the Board, the city staff said it could not recommend approval of the setback variance for various reasons.
Despite the city’s staff concerns, Batavia Enterprises’ Vice President remained positive about the proceedings at the end of Wednesday’s public hearing,
“I’m encouraged we got 4 yeses and 3 no’s,” Austin Dempsey said. “I’m delighted to keep working with staff on developing a plan for the downtown Walgreens. I am exceptionally excited for what this represents for the future development of downtown Batavia.”
At least one resident also saw promise in the Board’s straw poll, but wished their actual votes were already taken.
“I’m disappointed that they will have to go … discuss and have the potential to change that (poll) vote,” said Jamie Saam, manager of the Rendezvu restaurant downtown. “I don’t think it’s a panic to make a decision now. I think it’s a smart decision.”
Residents Voice Their Choice on Walgreens
Saam was one of 22 residents who addressed the Zoning Board during Wednesday’s public hearing.
At least 16 were clearly in favor of the proposed Walgreens plan, and four were opposed to the plan.
Several business owners spoke of the economic importance Walgreens holds for the downtown area.
“I think it would be a huge error to risk losing our biggest anchor,” said Rob Hollis of K. Hollis Jewelers. Hollis has considered moving from Randall Road to downtown, but lack of parking remains an issue.
Jim Kirkhoff, director of development for Water Street Studios, said the proposed Walgreens plan has many positives in its building design and economic potential.
“Look at all the things that are right with it,” Kirkhoff said. “Overall this is a comprehensive solution.”
Despite Dempsey’s claims that the current plan represented concessions on Walgreens’ part, some residents disagreed.
“If Walgreens wants a privileged 50-year spot, then they better act like it,” said Robert B. Liva, oldest son of Ward 6 alderman Bob Liva. “I just think we can do a better job.”
Alderman Liva also thought the current plan as proposed was unacceptable.
Gerry Dempsey, chairman and CEO of Batavia Enterprises, closed out the public comments with an unplanned speech.
“If you don’t have a strong retail base downtown to support downtown businesses, these amenities don’t work,” he said of features such as added landscaping and bike racks. “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. Work with us.”
A Detailed Process
So why wasn’t the Zoning Board of Appeals able to make a recommendation for the Walgreens variance on Wednesday?
Before a recommendation is made, the Zoning Board needs to adopt what’s known as the findings of fact. These findings have to be in writing and address criteria such as unique circumstances applicable to the property and that the variance will not be detrimental to people who live and work in the area.
The need for findings was mentioned in the city’s original Feb. 17 memo for the public hearing, but they did not come to light until the end of Wednesday’s public hearing.
If the Zoning Board reaches a conclusion on the variance in March, the Community Development Committee would review the proposal at some point. Then the Batavia City Council would take final action on the variance.
It is important to note that this is all just for the front setback variance for the proposed Walgreens. The committees and alderman will address the variance first because it is considered by all involved parties to be the most crucial aspect of the proposal.
A City Council vote addressing the setback variance would effectively determine whether the current plan for a new Walgreens moves forward, or dies.
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