BATAVIA – The “ROAD CLOSED” sign mounted on an orange-and-white barricade at the entrance to downtown Batavia’s North River Street commercial district is deterring visitors from shopping and dining at businesses already hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
The message conflicts with the “Welcome to River Street” banner hanging overhead, while the barricade obscures any view of the outdoor dining and entertainment that merchants are promoting to attract foot traffic.
Closing the first block of the street to motor vehicle traffic was intended to help businesses by providing more space for outdoor activities.
At a committee-level meeting of the Batavia City Council on Tuesday, aldermen decided to reopen the street to vehicles, one-way southbound only. This will allow for removal of the barricade, now required under Illinois Department of Transportation regulations.
Aldermen further authorized the purchase of picnic tables, umbrellas and festival lighting, to be financed from a state economic development grant fund the city has been using to help pay for building façade improvements and initiatives such as the Boardwalk Shops. There is still roughly $50,000 in the fund.
The council’s action came in response to a large group of North River business owners who told aldermen that appearances are critical to the street’s success.
“The aesthetics are the most important thing,” said James Joseph, owner of The Book Shop at 15 N. River St.
“I just want it to look pretty,” said Missi Hartmann, owner of The Tea Tree shop at 29 N. River St.
Hartmann said signs need to be posted on Wilson Street to tell motorists that the North River district is accessible from State Street.
Kasey Hoag, whose Six + Cypress fashion boutique sits at the corner of East Wilson and North River streets, urged the council to act quickly.
“We need to do something and fast,” Hoag said. “We’re all struggling.”
John Hamel, owner of Bar Evolution, 27 N. River St., agreed.
“My business is down 50 to 60%, even with all you’ve done,” Hamel said.
Business owners are actively promoting the street with trivia nights, live music and open mic events, Hamel said.
“Whatever you do can we please do it quickly?” Sherri Wilcox, director of the Batavia MainStreet downtown business organization, told the council. “If we wait too long it’s going to fail,” Wilcox said.
Batavia Public Works Director Gary Holm said the directional signs suggested by Hartmann will be posted soon.
An application to IDOT for the one-way southbound arrangement on North River will be filed immediately, Holm said, but approval is likely to take some time.
The purchase of the tables, umbrellas and lighting was approved on a 12-0 vote, with two aldermen absent. Final approval will need to be made by aldermen at their next full council meeting on Aug. 17, said 2nd Ward Alderman Alan Wolff.
A downtown business group is urging the city of Batavia to expand the practice of closing off North River Street to vehicle traffic.
Batavia MainStreet, which organizes downtown festivals and promotes merchant activity in the central business district, wants to make the street a destination for shopping and night-life.
The group also is concerned that construction on the One Washington Place redevelopment project, expected to begin next spring, will present a major challenge to North River Street businesses.
MainStreet board member Rob Hollis told the Batavia City Council at a committee meeting on Aug. 13 that it would help get people into the habit of visiting the street for shopping and dining, before construction begins.
“It’s going to be a burden” for business owners, Hollis said.
The first block of North River, from East Wilson Street, is paved with bricks and lined with planters and benches but no curbs, in an arrangement design to slow vehicle traffic and allow pedestrians and bicyclists to share the roadway.
Every Saturday from June through October, the street is closed for two full blocks, from East Wilson to Spring Street, for the Batavia Farmer’s Market. The market runs from 8 a.m. to noon.
The street is closed to vehicles ahead of the event to allow for setup, and usually reopens about 3 p.m. the same day.
Hollis asked aldermen to consider closing the street to vehicle traffic starting the previous Friday afternoon. This would allow for outdoor music, art shows and other activities on Friday evenings, Hollis said.
He also asked the council to consider allowing patrons to bring food and drink purchased in businesses out into the street, particularly for the MainStreet-sponsored Oktoberfest celebration.
Hollis also asked the city to install more substantial barriers to be used when the street is closed off at East Wilson.
Aldermen were supportive of the idea for expanding the hours for closing off the street, some even suggesting it not be reopened until Sunday.
“I love this idea,” 5th Ward Alderman Abby Beck said. “I think this is something the community would embrace,” she said.
“We really designed this street to be closed off,” 2nd Ward Alderman Alan Wolff said.
Dave Brown, who only recently stepped down as a member of the council, stood to address his former colleagues, asking them to give the proposal a chance.
“I urge you to let MainStreet work with your staff,” Brown said. “You don’t know until you try.”
Sixth Ward Alderman Michael Russotto said the idea would be “a great test case.”
James Joseph, owner of The Book Shop, 15 N. River St., told aldermen that he always does more business during the Farmer’s Market and other special events when the street is closed to vehicles.
Joseph said Batavia needs to create a destination for visitors and residents alike.
“River Street gives you that every time you do these special events,” Joseph said.
Wendy Reed, owner of the upscale restaurant Verita, 15 E. Wilson St., also spoke in favor of the idea. Reed’s restaurant features a large outdoor seating area along River Street.
“There is definitely a wonderful energy on that street,” Reed said.
“The future of Batavia has to be the downtown,” said Hamel, who also owns the Pal Joey’s restaurant on Randall Road.
Hollis asked that the city implement the idea yet this season, in order to increase River Street’s exposure.
City Administrator Laura Newman said the proposal should have been made sooner to give city staff time to work out the details.
Public Works Director Gary Holm said closing off River Street requires a time-specific permit from the Illinois Department of Transportation, because the portion of East Wilson with which North River intersects is part of state Route 25.
Newman said closing the street to vehicle traffic needs to be made in conjunction with a festival or other special event, making clear that MainStreet or some other organization must take responsibility whenever this occurs.
Newman expressed concern with monitoring outdoor alcohol consumption.
“You’re asking for permission to allow patrons to leave businesses with liquor,” Newman said. “That’s a big deal.”
Holm said he would contact IDOT concerning a permit. Newman said MainStreet should make out a new event application.