Between the city’s 73 business improvement districts (BIDs), 2016 saw almost $34 million spent on sanitation and $22 million on public safety, according to a report released by the Department of Small Business Services last week. That’s 3.9 million trash bags collected and $648,000 hours logged by public safety personnel. Up slightly from the $127 million they spent in 2015, these city-certified nonprofits invested a total of $134 million last year in the areas they cover. Gregg Bishop, commissioner of the Department of Small Business Services, was quick to note that the gaps the BIDs fill don’t indicate a failure by the city. “What the BIDs provide is an additional service,” he said. “The city cannot [legally] reduce services to a BID area. It’s almost like you have dessert and it’s the cherry on top.”
The wealthiest BID in Manhattan is the Downtown Alliance, which spent slightly more than $20 million last year to provide services for its 458 block faces — almost twice as many as blocks the next-largest BID. Manhattan is also home to the smallest BID, which covers the two block faces of 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, but which still managed to bring in more than a $1 million in revenue. That particular block of 47th Street is home to numerous high-end jewelry and diamond retailers, which likely pay comparatively large membership fees as calculated by an algorithm the BIDs use to determine how much each business should contribute.
Based on each business’s real estate tax assessment, this formula brings in helpful funds from enormous stores like Nike, which opened a new 55,000-square-foot location in the Soho-Broadway Initiative last fall, but can make it difficult to maintain a balance between each district’s commercial and residential characteristics. Soho residents vehemently protested against Niketown, which features half-size basketball and soccer courts. Mark Dicus, executive director of Soho-Broadway, said the BID had been in contact with Nike before the store opened to make them aware of the community’s concerns.
On the flip side, the organizations can also help their members tap into additional consumer bases. The East Midtown Partnership held its second annual Lunar New Year celebration last year in collaboration with the Grand Central and Chinatown Partnerships after retailers noticed a possibility to cater to Chinese visitors to the area.
“This was a good way to bring a cultural activity to the area that would appeal to shoppers and tourists,” said Rob Byrnes, president of the East Midtown BID. “That would help retail, and was also accompanied by other education forums, so that the retailers had a better appreciation of the Chinese consumer dollar.”
Plenty of other BIDs also spent money on special projects outside of the basic services they are formed to contribute. Dicus used some of his $586,705 in funds to create and distribute a pamphlet detailing the rules for street vending, which he felt was adding to pedestrian congestion in a district with already crowded sidewalks. “I think it’s a great resource for vendors who are operating in our district,” Dicus said. “Vending is not an easy activity. Having a clear understanding and a clear guide on where you can be, when you can be, and the rules you need to follow just was a no-brainer for us.”
Some would argue that BIDs contribute to increasing rents and resulting gentrification. Columbia University adjunct professor Moshe Adler told the New York Times last week that “the city’s network of business improvement districts had created an inequitable system in which those who live and work in affluent neighborhoods have access to better services.”
But Bishop sees that as unfair. “[BIDs] are helping [small] businesses adapt to the changing consumer behavior,” he said. “They are actually working to help support not only independent businesses but long-standing businesses to keep them in the community because they are the fabric of the community.” As 33 of them have been created in the last 15 years, the districts currently show no signs of losing steam.
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org