BATAVIA – 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 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 Farmers 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 drinks 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.”
“We really designed this street to be closed off,” 2nd Ward Alderman Alan Wolff said.
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 farmers market and other special events when the street is closed to vehicles.
Joseph said Batavia needs to create a destination for visitors and residents.
“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.
John Hamel, owner of Bar Evolution, 27 N. River St., also urged the council to take action. “The future of Batavia has to be the downtown,” said Hamel, who also owns Pal Joey’s restaurant on Randall Road.
Hollis asked that the city implement the idea 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.