CB3 Panel Backs Chinatown BID; CB2 Weighs in Tonight
Tuesday night, Chinatown business and political leaders won an important victory, as Community Board 3’s economic development committee voted to support their proposal for a business Improvement District. Many more steps lie ahead, including five more community board meetings and assessments by the City Council, borough president and mayor. The next stop: Community Board 2’s business development panel, which meets tonight.
It was standing room only in a meeting room on Eldridge Street. Supporters and opponents of the BID plan took turns addressing CB3 members. David Louie, BID steering committee co-chair, pleaded “let’s help ourselves,” adding. “we live and work in the community and we want to see it grow and flourish.” City Councilmember Margaret Chin, a lifelong Chinatown activist, echoed Louie’s sentiments, saying the creation of a BID would allow businesses and residents working together “to build a better future for our community.”
BID backers say there’s great urgency to act now because a $5.4 million “Clean Streets” grant from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. expires in just a couple of weeks. Without a business improvement district to take over street maintenance, they say, Chinatown will become a dirty, smelly mess.
The Chinatown Partnership, a non-profit organization, has utilized the LMDC grant during the past four years to sweep streets clean, to handle snow removal and to remove graffiti. Speaker after speaker recalled the unsanitary conditions that prevailed before the Clean Streets program began. Peter Lau, who owns two pharmacies, said he fears the city will once again begin fining him for failing to maintain the sidewalk in front of his businesses (as it did before the Partnership was formed). “The BID would save me money,” he said. Another business owner agreed, saying “I would rather pay the BID than pay the city a lot more.”
There was also support from some of Chinatown’s neighbors. Mark Miller, president of the Lower East Side BID, said the city’s business districts effectively advocate for their neighborhoods. “It’s almost like having a direct line to city hall,” he added. “Working together, you’re stronger, you have a bigger voice,” Miller advised.
But there were also lots of reservations expressed about the Chinatown BID Tuesday. Jan Lee, a Mott Street property owner and leader of the Coalition Against the Chinatown BID, said he feared creating an organization that cannot (easily) be dissolved and which can raise assessments at will.
Other speakers said they were philosophically opposed to the idea of taxing property owners to pay for maintenance the city should already be performing. Eugene Leong worried about potentially high administrative costs, saying some BIDs devote up to 36% of their budgets to salaries and office expenses. Jeannie Chin, who lives just outside the proposed BID boundaries, said, “I oppose taxation without representation. No BID, no way!”
If the BID becomes a reality, its board would be elected by property owners and would also include various community leaders. But some opponents fear the Chinatown Partnership would exercise too much power over the organization. Phillip Grossman, the coalition’s attorney, said the Partnership’s track record (in the Clean Streets program) has led him to believe the BID would be “top heavy.” Based on an analysis of financial records, he concluded the Partnership had spent too much money on administration and not enough on street cleaning.
But Community Board 3’s district manager, Susan Stetzer, was ready with a rebuttal of Grossman’s assertions. “Were you aware that for three years the (city’s) Economic Development Corp. was (administering) the cleaning contract (rather than the Chinatown Partnership)?, she asked. Grossman replied, “that should have been disclosed in financial statements.”
Following the public testimony, CB3 committee members asked some questions of BID advocates and raised a few concerns. Community board member Thomas Parker (a school teacher) put up a pie chart showing the proposed BID budget and said the fact that management costs made up 20% of the budget was concerning.
Herman Hewitt, who represents CB3 on the Lower East Side BID, urged the Chinatown group to look beyond street cleaning. “Landlords can get together to clean the streets — it’s not that hard,” he said. BID backer David Louie replied that sidewalk maintenance would be the first priority, but only a part of what the organization hopes to do for the neighborhood. The BID would put up holiday lights, look at holding special events (such as a Taste of Chinatown) and serve as advocates for local business owners, he assured committee members.
Some issues brought up by the coalition against the BID were not addressed directly in the question and answer session. For example, there was no follow-up to the allegations made about the Partnership’s management of the LMDC grant. While the New York Post reported “no discrepancies have turned up,” BID supporters have not broken down publicly how each dollar of the grant was spent.
There was also not much discussion about another topic — whether a prevailing wage bill recently passed by the State Legislature would force the Chinatown BID to pay workers a lot more than they have anticipated. Yesterday morning on WNYC, BID opponent Jan Lee continued to express concerns about the legislation, which the governor has not yet signed. But in the radio segment, Crain’s reporter Eric Enquist said the issue is a “red herring” since the bill specifically excluded BIDs.
One community board member said he was surprised by the opposition to the BID proposal. Supporters of the initiative, however, believe it’s to be expected. “No business owner likes the idea of having to pay more taxes and fees,” one community organizer told me, in explaining why some people have raised their voices against the plan. BID backers estimated there are about a thousand eligible property owners in the proposed district (not including condo owners). They said 97% of those who returned their ballots (about 550 individuals) support the creation of a BID. The city requires at least 51% of property owners to agree.
After everyone had their say, the panel voted in favor of the proposal. The hearing room erupted with applause and cheering, as supporters congratulated one another for passing an early but crucial test. We’ll let you know how it goes this evening before Community Board 2’s business development committee. We’re anticipating some fireworks from outspoken Soho activist Sean Sweeney, who believes the Chinatown BID’s boundaries are too expansive.