It's not exactly news when somebody says Batavia could make better use of the Fox River, as did a committee in a 2010 report to the city about its downtown.
“Our residents have an intuitive understanding of the many extraordinary physical assets of our community. But we do not advertise these assets to visitors, nor use them for the economic benefit of our city,” the report said.
Mayor Jeff Schielke has mixed feelings about that assessment.
“There has been quite a bit of forward movement,” he said.
Schielke should know. The 66-year-old grew up in Batavia, and has been its mayor for 32 years. He recalls when its western bank was filled with factories, and can see a future when remaining industrial properties on the east bank are redeveloped in to commercial and retail space.
Pleasure wasn't what drew white settlers to the Fox River in the first place. Availability of water for consumption and for power was the driving force. Batavia's riverfront featured factories and foundries, including windmill factories. In the 1870s, the town hand-dug a channel for the river so that it could have four frontages for factories, Schielke said.
The downtown had shops and taverns that primarily served residents, people who walked to work in those factories, he said, in districts east of the river and on Batavia Avenue.
The only dedicated downtown river-oriented recreational areas were Clark Island Park, which was developed in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration, and a private area on that west channel where people ice-skated, which was depicted in the 1950s on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
Major changes started to come in the late 1950s, when the town decided to close that second river channel. The U.S. Windmill and Engine Co. factory was razed and a shopping center was built. Eventually, several banks, a McDonald's and another strip shopping center were added where the channel ran.
In 1973 the city bought the 15-acre Appleton Windmill property on North Island Avenue. It eventually sold some of it for the Riverrain senior apartment building, with the proviso that the public retain access to the riverfront.
“They knew they were buying in the middle of a park,” Schielke said.
The Kane County Forest Preserve District, meanwhile, had started acquiring the rights of way from the railroad lines that used to run along the river, turning them into recreational trails on both sides of the river, unlike towns to the north and south.
The city established tax-increment financing districts for parts of the downtown. It used TIF money to buy factories on the west bank, which were razed and turned into condominiums and town homes.
But as recently as the late 1980s, the area west of the Batavia Government Center was a junk-strewn lot next to the former city hall, which was in an industrial building. Schielke recalls seeing rats run right through council meetings, and aldermen scrambling to place buckets to catch roof leaks.
That changed in a major way with two projects.
One was when the city remodeled the remaining Appleton building into the current Batavia Government Center, containing city offices and the police department.
The second? The Batavia Riverwalk.
It took eight years to build the Riverwalk, with volunteers' donations of time, sweat and money to pay for jobs they couldn't do themselves. It's a major point of civic pride.
Gardeners put in a wildlife sanctuary, a warming house called the Peg Bond Center was built and a band shell added to it in 2011. There's a playground, and it features a collection of the windmills that made Batavia famous.
It hosts several festivals each year, including the lighting of the town's Christmas tree, and is the start and finish line for many a charitable run. It was lined with thousands of candles twice for 9/11 memorials. And it has been connected to the east side of the river by a bicycle-and-pedestrian bridge.
The bicyclists are important to Batavia; Schielke said he has heard reports that as many as 5,000 can be seen on the trail on weekends, branching off to visit restaurants and coffee shops.
The city doesn't intend to rest on its laurels.
It is in the midst of a multiyear streetscape improvement, in part aimed at getting its own residents to come down to the river more often.
Streets are getting brick sidewalks, seating areas, trees, decorative lighting, arches, wider sidewalks, prettier crosswalks and more. It started with a bang last year, turning North River Street from a conventional street to an all-in-one brick paver plaza-like thing called a woonerf.
The city encourages pedestrians to stop for a minute on the Wilson Street bridge, which has benches and sculptures.
But there are still challenges. You can't see the river in many places. And walking along it sometimes requires taking a flight of stairs.
The city wants to figure out a way to open up access on both private and public property. One of the best potential views is between the Batavia Government Center and a strip shopping center if brush and trees could be cleared and a stepped pavilion and riverside trail built, as proposed in the streetscape design.
The brush is a pet peeve of Schielke's. On a drive along North River Street, he pointed out a trail-side park bench that faces a wall of large bushes and scrubby trees. The city doesn't own the land. The same is true near the north dam; the best view comes from the back parking lot of a former factory.
He also pointed out properties on South River that the Batavia Park District has bought to make small parks, including one that will be a kind of informational spot for bicyclists passing through town.
Much of the downtown streetscape improvements are being paid for with money from tax-increment financing districts, which freeze the assessed value of properties for purposes of paying taxes to local governments.
The money generated through higher property values is funneled back into improvements. And although the rest of the city's taxpayers technically then aren't paying, that hasn't stopped some criticism.
In particular, some residents were astounded when the city paid more than $117,000 to install a decorative arch at North River and Wilson. They questioned whether that would improve the value of properties in the TIF district, said it was ugly, and argued that businesses passed along their property tax costs to consumers.
The city council has argued recently about the price of implementing some of the designs and the cost of maintaining some of the items. Nevertheless, the city plans to continue work, with the rebuilding next year of Houston Street, which ends at the river.
The street needs rebuilding, whether or not decorative touches are added. Water Street, Shumway Avenue and First Street are also supposed to be spiffed up.
Schielke is confident, however, that the shift from the river's industrial past is ingrained; the emphasis on recreation, respecting the river environment, and integrating it to the town's economic development is strong.
“We've put the vision on the street for it,” he said. “It's a pretty hard idea for anybody to change or resist.”Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.