There’s an often unseen force behind many of the changes in New York City’s neighborhoods over the last few decades.
The city’s 70 Business Improvement Districts do more than plant flowers and hire people to sweep up litter: they’ve also played a big role in some of the more fundamental transformations of areas like Times Square, the Financial District and Downtown Brooklyn.
The goal of the organizations is to spruce up neighborhoods and draw new businesses across the five boroughs. Every district has its own budget, its own priorities, its own relationship with local property owners and its own leadership.
Some of those leaders wield a good deal of clout in their pursuit of projects and development, such as adding more pedestrian access to a neighborhood, creating public plazas or holding community events to make neighborhoods more 24/7.
High-profile or low, BIDs all work in the same way. The property owners in each district pay an annual assessment fee to the city Department of Finance, which redistributes it to the BIDs.
A district’s budget depends on the assessment of the commercial properties there, which is calculated by either square footage or resale value. In other words, bigger BIDs and those in prime locations have bigger budgets.
The city estimates BIDs invest $100 million in programs and services in neighborhoods throughout the city annually.
The Real Deal took a look at some of the city’s most notable and most historic BIDs in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.
Read on for an introduction to their leadership:
Tim Tompkins, president, Times Square Alliance
It’s been a long time since it seemed like it was impossible to walk through Times Square without getting mugged. But while crime dropped, the increasing popularity of the area brought another problem. It became virtually impossible to get through the area at all, due to congestion. The 2009 closing of Broadway and subsequent creation of pedestrian plazas are among the biggest changes in the neighborhood over the last decade or so. The Times Square Alliance, led for the last 12 years by Tim Tompkins, is in charge of maintaining the plazas and has worked to improve quality of life in the square, mostly with regard to hecklers and the aggressive costumed characters that are often accused of harassing tourists. The alliance also advocates for an investment from the city in tourism in the square. One such addition to the square is the red steps, which double as the roof of the TKTS booth, where discounted Broadway tickets are sold at Duffy Square. The rebuilding of that area went forward in conjunction with property owners such as Sherwood Equities, which owns 2 Times Square and 1600 Broadway. Over time, however, the biggest change in Times Square, Tompkins said, has been the “soaring asking rents for retail.” Office rents in the area hover between $45 and $85 per square foot, while ground floor retail can go for as much as $1,000 per square foot. A safer, more accessible Times Square has lead to an uptick in tourist activity, which in turn fueled the soaring real estate values.
Monica Blum, president, Lincoln Square Business Improvement District
Monica Blum started her tenure as president 19 years ago. When she arrived, the neighborhood was less safe, less clean and there were barely any plants or parks. The budget was much smaller too — $1 million back then, compared with $2.7 million today. On top of that, the neighborhood had far fewer restaurants and retail options. Property owners in the BID include Milstein Properties and Millennium Partners, along with the Mayflower Hotel and the Empire Hotel. Blum started out working in the budget office in the Ed Koch administration, where she also met her husband. She spent most of her career working for multiple city agencies. She said she is always available to talk and listen to developers interested in the area, but added, “I don’t advocate one type of use over another.” One of the major properties awaiting redevelopment in the neighborhood is the American Bible Society Building on Broadway and 61st Street, which was listed for sale last year at $300 million. While the BID takes a hand in beautifying the neighborhood — Blum said she has raised nearly $1 million toward that goal — she maintained she would have little input about the Bible Society project. “It’d be presumptuous for me to sit down with a developer.”
Ellen Baer, president, Hudson Square Connection
The Hudson Square Connection’s main issue is traffic congestion near the Holland Tunnel. With more car traffic than most other neighborhoods and a history of being pedestrian unfriendly and not much of a ground floor environment, “we are different from practically everyone else,” Ellen Baer said. “We were formed to try and mitigate the physical and psychological impact of being a neighborhood that was once just a place on the way to the tunnel, and we’ve done that.” The BID was formed in 2009, takes in $2.5 million in assessment fees from commercial landlords and focuses mostly on beautification. Baer said the BID is working to raise $6 million to renovate a park on Sixth Avenue and Spring Street.
When it started, the BID aimed to boost retail and commercial space in a neighborhood that used to be primarily focused on manufacturing. Hudson Square was one of the last true industrial neighborhoods of Manhattan south of 96th Street, Baer said, with the tunnel as “a defining factor.”
The BID helped to add sidewalks and pedestrian countdown lights to the area, as well as pedestrian “traffic managers” — people hired by the BID to direct traffic — in the street. “We’ve created a pedestrian environment here,” she said. Improving the streetscape by planting trees is another way the BID has helped improve the neighborhood, she said. Hudson Square now has roughly 45,000 people working there, in TAMI and other industries. As a result of the influx and the area’s improvements, the neighborhood’s retail scene has improved with many new restaurants.
Tucker Reed, president, Downtown Brooklyn Partnership
The Downtown Brooklyn Partnership is the combination of three smaller BIDs from adjacent neighborhoods: the Metrotech BID, the Fulton Mall Improvement Association and the Court-Livingston-Schermerhorn BID. The partnership formed in 2006 and the different BIDs were incorporated in the summer of 2011. Since a rezoning in 2004, Downtown Brooklyn is becoming more residential, and in the next two years, roughly 12,000 more units will be added, Reed said. The BIDs’ biggest challenge as the neighborhoods change is transforming the governmental center of the borough into a 24/7 destination. The BID oversaw changes — such as repurposing buildings and renovating public spaces — necessary to attract more investment in the area. Together, the Downtown Brooklyn BIDs are among the largest in the city, with a total operating budget of roughly $7 million. Before running the partnership, Reed worked for the Bloomberg administration and ran a BID in Dumbo. He also worked for the Brooklyn-based Two Trees Management Company, and at one time served as the developer’s representative on the board of the Brooklyn Partnership. Reed has been in his current position since 2012.
Elizabeth Lusskin, president, Long Island City Partnership
The Long Island City Partnership is both the local development corporation and the BID for the Queens residential hotspot. While the former was formed 1979, the latter came about in 2005, around the time of the start of the neighborhood’s transformation. The main corridors that run through Long Island City — Queens Plaza and Jackson Avenue, all the way down to Court Square — have seen major changes in the last decade. Lusskin said the area didn’t feel safe in the past. The BID has helped enhance it, through efforts like pushing the city to install a bike path leading up to the Queensboro Bridge and the transition of Dutch Kills Green — 1.5 acres of open space that is part of the Queens Plaza roadway, pedestrian and bicycle improvement project — along with the addition of new trees and new lighting. While thousands more rental apartments are being built throughout the area, retail development is still slow, Lusskin said. “There is still a ways to go,” she said. “We’re now in a situation where we have a lot coming that isn’t quite here yet.” With the influx of more residents, however, the BID director is expecting more retail to follow, but pointed to retail marketing as the last big frontier for the area. Lusskin takes a picture from the office’s window overlooking Queens Plaza every month, to document the changes going on around her, such as new residential towers sprouting up. Before joining the Long Island City Partnership in October 2013, Lusskin was involved with urban improvement and worked for Manhattan’s Downtown Alliance when it was first formed. “I really was so excited about this neighborhood,” she said. “It’s a city within a city … it’s not a one-dimensional challenge.”
Jessica Lappin, president, The Alliance for Downtown New York
The BID for Lower Manhattan — fittingly, the city’s oldest neighborhood has the city’s oldest improvement district — is coming up on its 20th anniversary. With a budget of roughly $18 million, the Downtown Alliance is also among the city’s largest, encompassing nearly all of Lower Manhattan. When the BID started, Lappin said, “nobody was here after 5 p.m.” The alliance was tasked with the challenge of making the area a 24/7 community, including making it more attractive to retail and adding a convenient way to get around in the neighborhood. “There’s an energy and a dedication that you feel when you talk to tenants and residents,” said Lappin. “There’s real passion and commitment for this community.” Among the major public real estate developments in the area over the last few years is the Fulton Transit Center near One World Trade, where nine subway lines come together. A mall is opening up inside the newly created transit hub. One of the projects Lappin is working on is a 12,500-square-foot work, lounge and meeting place for the creative industries at 150 Broadway. NY Tech Meetup and NY Tech Council are planning to run programs from there. The alliance will operate the site, which aims to serve as a collaborative workspace. A massive retail revolution is also underway in the neighborhood. Including Westfield’s mall at the World Trade Center and the shops at Brookfield Place, roughly 250 new stores will open in the area over the 18 months. “It’s unbelievable that this will be a shopping destination, that’s a huge change for us,” Lappin said. “A very positive change.”
The Alliance has a research department that gives out information about Lower Manhattan and is responsible for the Downtown Connection — a hop-on, hop-off bus service that operates throughout Lower Manhattan — along with homeless outreach, Lappin said. The former councilwoman started at the BID in March 2014.