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Bob Zuckerman: Checking in With the BID’s New Boss

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In the past five months, Bob Zuckerman has definitely been making his presence known on the Lower East Side. The new executive director of the Business Improvement District has become a familiar face at community board meetings, as well as up and down Orchard Street.  In a recent interview at the BID’s new headquarters at 54 Orchard, Zuckerman talked about what he’s been up to — and what his big priorities will be when the summer winds down in a couple of weeks.

It’s definitely a time of transition and expansion for the BID. After many months working out of makeshift offices, a sleek new Visitor Center is beginning to take shape, just below Grand Street. There will be a party for the neighborhood sometime in September — once the staff has settled in and, maybe, hung some pictures on the wall!

Beyond these cosmetic changes, the BID is getting ready in the next month to brief Community Board 3 and property owners on a proposal to expand the Improvement District’s boundaries. The current border (indicated in orange on the map above) encompasses 10 blocks, mostly along Orchard Street, and a small section of Broome. The new district would extend the borders to the Bowery on the west — Clinton Street on the east — and Division Street on the south.

Why expand? For one thing, Zuckerman said, there’s a need. Businesses on Clinton, in particular, are really struggling. Recently, there’s been talk of forming a merchant’s association on the block to provide shop and restaurant owners with added marketing muscle.  Zuckerman said there’s clearly a demand for the kinds of services the BID now provides businesses in its core area — including  sanitation services, graffiti removal, p.r., special events planning, security guards and small business assistance.

One hurdle was cleared last month when the Lower East Side reached an agreement on boundaries with the Chinatown Partnership, which is trying to set up a BID of its own.   Ultimately, property owners in the proposed area would have to agree to an assessment before the expansion could happen. But Zuckerman said it’s important that the larger community understand what’s being proposed and why.

This thinking is indicative of the BID’s new determination to reach out beyond the Lower East Side’s traditional business interests. In a neighborhood in which gentrification is a major topic of conversation, the Business Improvement District is opting for a balanced approach. While there’s obviously a focus on helping small businesses grow, the BID is also trying to work with the community board and other neighborhood organizations to keep unbridled development in check.

Zuckerman, having served on two New York City community boards, is no stranger to community activism. He’s become a member of CB3’s land use committee, which is attempting to reach a consensus on what should be done with the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. The BID – which borders the 7-acre development site – obviously has a stake in what’s decided, especially as it relates to potential retail and office space in SPURA. But Zuckerman made it clear his organization has no intention of wading into the affordable housing debate, the central issue dividing many committee members.

He’s also been attending the economic development committee’s meetings.  That panel has been trying to come up with strategies to help struggling businesses survive.  The recession has forced a lot of longtime shops to close, but there’s widespread agreement that many of the problems small business owners are facing are unrelated to the current downturn. Zuckerman has applied to be a public member of the committee.

In his first several months on the job, he’s spent a good deal of time talking with businesses about their concerns. There’s optimism about the Lower East Side’s continued allure as a destination, he said. But at the same time, it’s obvious a lot more coordination among businesses, neighborhood organizations and local government will be necessary to overcome the present challenges.

Just this week, the BID hired Tim Lemberger to be in charge of marketing and public relations.  He was formerly director of communications for the National Academy Foundation. Zuckerman said he’d like to see the Improvement District sponsor a monthly “night out” on the Lower East Side, encompassing dinner specials, entertainment and shopping deals.  Building foot traffic and getting more people in the habit of coming to the LES in the evenings for activities other than bar hopping are high priorities.

Meanwhile, planning is well underway for Apples on Orchard, an event in its third year, scheduled for September 26th. And Zuckerman is looking forward to meeting as many residents as he can at the BID’s open house in the fall. We’ll let you know when that’s scheduled.

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