An old Batavia neighborhood that's been around almost 100 years is getting a new name and fresh attention from city officials.
It's called West Town, and changes could come to it under an idea unveiled this week.
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City officials, including administrator Bill McGrath and Mayor Jeff Schielke, discussed the idea of creating a tax-increment financing district to help redevelop an area that stretches roughly from First Street on the north to Walnut Street on the south, Van Nortwick Avenue on the west to Harrison Street on the east. Parcels in it are currently zoned for light industrial use, single-family houses, neighborhood commercial buildings and small multifamily residences such as duplexes.
It is home to several factories, a car repair shop, a few small stores and offices, the Elms restaurant and vacant lots.
About one-third of the area is unincorporated, judging by a map shown at an open house Monday.
Don't blame the fire
"There is no one aspect or occurrence that led to this," McGrath told the crowd. "It's almost been lost in some ways."
However, the area has come to the forefront with the planned reconstruction of Main Street next year from Route 31 to Van Nortwick. The MasterCast factory at First Street and Mallory Avenue, destroyed in a fire in March, has moved elsewhere and doesn't plan to rebuild on the site. Across from it is a vacant lot where the Batavia Foundry and Machine Co. burned in 1985.
"We're kind of reacting as a community to moments of history," Schielke said, explaining how once electricity arrived in Batavia, factories didn't have to rely on the Fox River for power and so began moving to the then-edge of town. The foundries were built in the 1920s. Housing began appearing more in the mid-1960s, he said, after Wilson Street was extended to Randall Road due to the building of Batavia High School.
Under the idea outlined, the industrial zoning would be eliminated. Multifamily housing, -- such as apartments or town homes -- is envisioned for the foundry sites, and more commercial/office uses along Main.
TIF districts can be set up to rejuvenate blighted areas, or to conserve properties. The West Town idea would be a conservation TIF, meant to prevent or halt blight, according to Joel Strassman, the city's planning and zoning officer. In a TIF district, the assessed value of property is frozen for the purpose of distributing tax money to local units of government. But the increase in taxes created by the increase in value of improved or redeveloped properties is funneled back into improvements, such as roads and other infrastructure, or improvements to the existing buildings.
The people at the open house, most of whom had been invited, warily asked questions. Some of the wariness was because owners of the unincorporated parcels have recently been notified the city wants to annex their properties. The city is trying to eliminate "islands" of unincorporated properties that are surrounded by the city.
One woman asked if the city would promise, in writing, not to take land by eminent domain for redevelopment purposes. Others wanted to know if existing businesses would be forced to move, and how the city picked the boundaries for the area.
Desired land uses were designated in the comprehensive land use plan the city council adopted in 2007. But zoning hasn't been changed. Rezoning would require public hearings before the city's plan commission and a vote by the council.
To establish a TIF district, the city would have to do a formal study to see if the area was eligible, then have formal public hearings and a vote by the city council.
McGrath said the existing uses, such as the factories, would be allowed to stay as long as they want, even if their land was rezoned. He also said that it was unlikely the city would condemn land for economic redevelopment. The only time he could recall the city taking land forcibly for such was when it bought the downtown Thomle Building in 1997, and it did so because the building had fallen into disrepair.
He also said West Town redevelopment wasn't even a "proposal" yet, just an idea. The administrators will discuss the input received at the open house; no date has been set to discuss it with the city council, or hire a firm to do a TIF eligibility study.
"A city is a changing organism over time," McGrath said.