DUMBO Makes a BID
If the dogs stop barking long enough from inside their kennels at DUMBO Pets—an all-purpose pet owner’s delight housed on the short cobblestone stretch of Washington Street in the growing Brooklyn neighborhood—the sound of a passing Q train can be heard rattling overhead along the underbelly of the Manhattan Bridge.
The three-year-old shop occupies the basement level of a renovated building: one of many spaces in the neighborhood that was gutted, rebuilt, and with a fresh coat of paint, attracted new residents to the area alongside new investors. Many of the neighborhood’s industrial spaces have been revamped as coveted lofts with river views or swank restaurants to rival the ever-popular Grimaldi’s Pizza.
But much of DUMBO remains unchanged: cars move warily along poorly lit streets riddled with deep potholes and the exposed track of the old Brooklyn trolley line; graffiti tatters “For Rent” signs and the brick facades of former cardboard factory buildings; and the neighborhood empties after dark when—much like the late night hum of the neon lights adorning Times Square—the static rush of bridge traffic becomes DUMBO’s lullaby.
Helen Burguiere, the owner of DUMBO Pets, says improvements are on the way.
“Better lighting, security, fixing streets that need to be fixed: [the BID] is going to address these things that need to be addressed,” she says.
A steering committee is working to form a new Business Improvement District (BID) in DUMBO to levy community funds for investment in the neighborhood’s future. If the BID wins local support, property owners in the neighborhood would agree to impose charges upon themselves in order to supplement city services with private security, graffiti removal or the development of green spaces, for example. BIDs have been on the rise under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, and DUMBO seems—at least according to developers—ripe for the model.
In a Business Improvement District, the city collects the additional funds from property owners and issues it to district leaders, who then invest it into the community by augmenting—rather than replacing—city services. The “Town Hall” air to the BID model allows that participants will craft solutions tailored to their community’s specific needs in a flexible autonomous way, according to a recent international study of BIDs by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at M.I.T.
In DUMBO, property owners would pool levied cash to rid the neighborhood of its ragged outer layer in hopes of attracting new pedestrian traffic to the community: shoppers, diners, investors, tourists. The neighborhood—considered something of a subsection of Brooklyn Heights even as recently as the publication of the first Brooklyn Zagat’s guide in 2002—has emerged as an artists’ district, and the BID steering committee aspires for DUMBO to compete for visitors with Chelsea galleries and East Village haunts.
Lawrence Houstoun, president of The Atlantic Group, said at a recent American Planning Association conference that there are more than 1,200 BIDs in North America and they operate for one reason: “to compete for the visitor dollar.” Despite potential downsides to the model—debt, resources being diverted from true need, lack of public accountability, concerns over exclusionary practices—the method has proven itself practical, he says: “Today there are abundant examples and few doubts that the basic BID concept is viable.”
According to the study conducted by M.I.T., BIDs are not strictly a North American model for community renewal. The department’s recent study found similar legislation in New Zealand, South Africa, Serbia, and Albania, and evidence of the concept in Japan, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Lithuania, and the United Kingdom.
“BIDs are certainly not exceptional anymore,” says Isaac Esterman, an associate at Two Trees Management and an organizer for the steering committee, which launched the BID proposal for DUMBO from the Two Trees offices at 45 Main Street.
Down the street from BID headquarters and just out of range of the barking dogs at DUMBO Pets sits 1 Main Street: a building which, in 1998, became the first new residential development in DUMBO in more than 80 years. The neighborhood was nearly abandoned after the building of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway in 1951 and the closing of the Brooklyn Navy Yard 15 years later. Its regeneration as an artists’ colony and a destination spot for city dwellers across the East River happened fast— fast enough that much of the neighborhood and the services that feed it haven’t had time to catch up.
“It’s an area that’s outgrown itself in a way,” says Esterman. “It’s having growing pains. Services from the city haven’t caught up to the changes.”
The proposal for a BID in DUMBO suggests that some members of the community are considering taking matters into their own hands. To pass, the BID requires 51 percent approval from DUMBO’s property owners and general support from the city council and the Mayor’s office. The model would, in a way, establish a city within a city, allowing some residents and local investors to make decisions and direct resources without elected control.
While critics would say that such a model gives too much power to area developers, supporters of the BID spin the model in a positive light. “A BID is a way to bring an old fashioned, localized accountability to some of the services being delivered in a neighborhood,” says Tom Montvel-Cohen, a representative of the Steering Committee and someone whom Esterman says has been involved in the project from the start. But the local autonomy offered by the model may be what landed BID directors in the disfavor of former Mayor Rudolf W. Giuliani, who reportedly felt district leaders such as BID czar Dan Biederman—who controlled the Grand Central Partnership, the Bryant Park Restoration Committee, and the 34th Street Partnership—wielded too much power in the late 1990s. Few new BIDs were established under Giuliani and those already operating had their budgets cut, according to newspaper reports at the time.
The current city administration, however, has breathed new life into the BID model. The application process has been streamlined under Mayor Bloomberg, and today the city’s Department of Small Business Services offers a How To booklet with step-by-step instructions for starting a Business Improvement District: “outlining each step of the BID formation process, with advice on how to create a successful new BID.”
There are 46 BIDs currently operating in the five boroughs, 14 in Brooklyn, and 20 neighborhoods citywide are considering establishing the model in their community, according to the Department of Small Business Services. With budgets of $150,000 to $500,000, and in neighborhoods from Brighton Beach to NoHo, the city’s business improvement districts operate on many scales and with varied ambitions. According to Esterman, “There are 46 BIDs in the city right now and 46 different formulas.”
The BID proposal for DUMBO would set the district’s boundaries from the East River to Old Fulton Street to the west, York Street to the south and Bridge Street to the east. The projected budget of $400,000 would be governed by a 17-member board composed of nine local property owners— including three owner-occupants— one residential renter, three commercial tenants and four elected officials, in accordance with the city’s BID laws.
BIDs in New York City were originally called Special Assessment Districts, and the current name— Business Improvement District— is what, according to Esterman, has run the steering committee into some trouble trying to garner support for the effort. “That name is part of what generates suspicion. ‘Business: What does that have to do with me? Why do I have to pay?’” says Esterman.
“At this point we’re visiting property owners, saying, ‘This is our plan. We want you to vote for it,’ and initially the [community response] was very supportive, going back months and months. But more recently, now that we’re out there asking for money, people are realizing, ‘Holy shit, this could actually happen and I’m going to have to pay,’” he says.
The estimated cost to property owners would depend on square footage, whether the property is commercial or residential, and the value of the property itself; the math of the proposal is available online at www.dumbobid.com. Based on calculations in the proposal, a 35,000-square-foot building in DUMBO with an assessed value of $300,000, for instance, would pay approximately $1,200 a year if it was residential and $2,400 a year if commercial. For condominium owners— from whom Esterman says he has received the stiffest resistance to the BID proposal— annual contribution would be $100 to $150 a year.
It’s not typical for a BID to tax residents, according to Esterman, and the issue again revisits the name: Business Improvement District. “This BID is far more residential in character than typical BIDs, and the city was concerned at first. We thought about calling it a Neighborhood Improvement District,” he says.
For Helen Burguiere at DUMBO Pets, the name is irrelevant. The money invested in the neighborhood won’t be coming out of her pockets— “We’re not paying the taxes, our landlord is,” she says— adding that “the BID will create new energy to meet the community’s needs.”
Proponents of the BID trust that the interests of DUMBO’s landlords and tenants will remain in sync. A BID, says Esterman, “creates an organization with full time resources to advocate tirelessly for DUMBO.”