Let 100 Business Districts Bloom

By Maurice Pinzon
Today the New York City Planning Commission approved a new Business Improvement District (BID) for the Manhattan’s Flatiron district. With strong support from local business owners, landlords and elected officials, and no major opposition expected, the BID is likely to begin operations soon. The City Council just needs to pass legislation approving the district, and the mayor must sign it.

Sharon Ullman, the president of the 23rd Street Association, said she had been interested in establishing a BID since 1989 but waited until Mayor Bloomberg took office because his administration was “pro-BID.” She also knew that the Commissioner of Small Business Services, Robert W. Walsh, would be fully supportive. “It made a huge difference,” she said.

Over the last year-and-a-half, Ms. Ullman said she had been “knocking on doors,” often “every day of the week, eight hours a day,” talking to merchants at retail stores about how a BID would benefit their businesses.

The proposed BID would roughly include the area bordered by 21st Street to the south and 29th Street to the north, Sixth Avenue to the west, extending eastward to Park Avenue South, in places almost reaching Third Avenue Ms. Ullman said the top priorities for the district were “sanitation, security and marketing.” The proposed budget for the district is $1.7 million.

BID’s allow property owners in commercial districts to set up nonprofit entities that provide enhanced services to the area. These services usually include sanitation and security to supplement existing City services. BID’s also provide additional services, such as marketing. The BID gets operating funds for these services through an additional fee assessment on properties within the BID.

The expansion of BID’s throughout the City — there are about 20 at different stages of development — to a great extent is due to Commissioner Walsh, who, at Mayor Bloomberg’s urging, has tried to “re-energize” commercial districts by making it easier for them to set up BID’s. It seems that Commissioner Walsh does not need much prompting. At times he seems like the Jane Jacobs of New York City’s commercial neighborhoods.

Yesterday, Commissioner Walsh and Ms. Ullman took reporters on a short walking tour of part of the proposed district. Commissioner Walsh, who operated the 14th Street BID years before becoming a commissioner, said a Flatiron/Madison BID would be “fine tuning” an already very good commercial district. Even a thriving commercial area needs a BID, Ms. Ullman pointed out. With “a lot of traffic on the streets,” she said, you have “more population, and the streets get pretty dirty.”

Walking along 23rd Street, the commissioner appeared to relish pointing to the little things that a BID could fix — a tree that needed pruning, graffiti that should be removed from building walls, sidewalks that could use repairs — all downgrading an otherwise fine commercial streetscape. With his enthusiasm for detail, he pointed to canopies on the south side of 23rd Street, between Park Avenue South and Broadway. The canopies jetted out, obstructing one another, making the block look unappealing for all. Then Commissioner Walsh pointed to a brand new store that had no canopy and said, “Look how much better that looks.”

But Commissioner Walsh was not done. He pointed to an apparently vacant commercial building and said that a BID could get in touch with the landlord, whom he speculated might be in Florida and may have forgotten about the property. According to the commissioner, the BID could offer the owner help in marketing the space.

“You can argue that BID’s have a knack for coordinating these issues,” Commissioner Walsh said yesterday.

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