At its recent annual meeting, the board of directors of the Lower East Side Business Improvement District approved a name change. The 24-year-old not-for-profit organization is now known as the Lower East Side Partnership (a new website is in development).
Last week, we spoke with the LES Partnership’s executive director, Tim Laughlin, about the reasons for the re-branding. He said it is the result of a lengthy planning process to determine how the BID can best serve a changing community. “The idea behind the name change,” said Laughlin, “was that we were partnering with other organizations to further our goals of improving neighborhood quality of life and bettering the Lower East Side.”
The BID was founded in 1992 by real estate developer Sion Misrahi. At the time, the Lower East Side suffered from disinvestment and the community was largely neglected by City Hall. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, gentrification took hold and nightlife businesses became the neighborhood’s primary industry. “I don’t think this is the BID of 1992, or of 2005,” explained Laughlin. “I think that the organization has changed in many ways… as a result of the community around us changing.”
The biggest change of all is the arrival of Delancey Street Associates, the consortium building the big Essex Crossing project on nine parcels fanning out from Delancey Street and Essex Street. The 1.9 million square foot residential and commercial development is the new center of gravity on the LES. During the last couple of years, the BID has been remaking itself in acknowledgement of the new reality.
As previously reported, the organization is working with the Essex Street Market Vendor Association on marketing and promotional events. The struggling public facility will become part of Essex Crossing when the first phase of construction is completed in 2018. In the meantime, efforts are underway to boost foot traffic and to reverse a false perception that the market is closed. The Partnership, vendors and Economic Development Corp. (which operates the market) plan to announce a number of facility improvements and public events in the spring. At the same time, the Partnership plans to team up with other neighborhood groups and institutions. “The concept really is to broaden our reach, to improve quality of life and enhance the daily life of folks who live, work and shop here,” said Laughlin.
The Lower East Side BID has long believed the lack of foot traffic is what ails small businesses throughout the neighborhood. There are high hopes that Essex Crossing, which includes 250,000 sq. ft. of office space, will help create a more lively daytime environment for businesses. “What we need to do,” Laughlin explained, “is to ensure that the transformative impacts of that project (Essex Crossing) are positive. It’s also our job to ensure that the community surrounding the project during the period of construction… continues to remain vibrant.”
The name change does not mean that the BID ceases to exist as a quasi-governmental entity. The District Management Association is primarily funded through a tax assessment on local property owners. Landlords pass on all or portions of the assessments to their commercial tenants. In the past few years, the BID faced the loss of revenues from parking lots soon to be part of the Essex Crossing development site. As we reported last summer, the district plan was changed by the City Council to place a higher tax burden on the large number of hotels that have opened in the area, as well as on the Essex Crossing development. The LES Partnership will continue to provide the same services it has always provided.
In the past, nearly 30% of the BID’s annual budget went for “supplemental services,” activities like street cleaning, graffiti removal and landscaping. In the budget for fiscal year 2016, those services make up 37% of the budget while 33% is set aside for marketing. A big priority in the past year was completion of the 100 Gates Project, which brought public art pieces to storefronts all over the Lower East Side. There’s also been a continued focus on streetscape improvements (like a new pedestrian area in front of the Tenement Museum).
Within the community, the BID has its share of detractors. Critics of the organization say it’s clearly beholden to landlords and too focused on nightlife. The organization’s image, however, has improved in recent years. Laughlin sits on the land use committee of Community Board 3 as a public member. The organization stepped in following the devastating 2nd Avenue explosion last year to establish a relief fund for impacted businesses. Laughlin argues that his organization plays an important role in helping to resolve conflicts that arise between residents and nightlife businesses.
His other point is that the board of directors is an increasingly representative group. The chairperson, Michael Forrest, is a property owner and other landlords are, if course, at the table. But the board also includes people like Niki Russ Federman of Russ & Daughters (a business owner and property owner), Andrew Chase of Cafe Katja and Julian Plyter of Melt Bakery.
“The work that we’re doing,” said Laughlin, “cleaning streets, installing public art, enhancing public open space, supporting merchants in public buildings — all adds up to us supporting community.” The name change, he argued, is a part of furthering those goals.