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East Harlem Wants a Business Improvement District Despite Past Failures

By Jeff Mays | February 14, 2013 8:25am

HARLEM — After several failed attempts, East Harlem officials say they want to set up a business improvement district on one of the historic neighborhood's main commercial corridors.

A portion of 116th Street, Third Avenue or Lexington Avenue are being considered as Community Board 11 begins the process of identifying a group to sell the idea to local property owners and merchants.

"We are one of the only districts in Upper Manhattan that does not have a business improvement district, we do not have a local development corporation or a thriving merchant association," said Diane Collier, chair of CB 11's Culture, Tourism and Economic Development committee.

Deputy Commissioner of the Neighborhood Development Division for the city Department of Small Business Services, Elizabeth De Leon Bhargava, said she too was surprised to learn that the neighborhood she calls home did not have a business improvement district.

East Harlem residents are clamoring for better retail options and restaurants in the neighborhood, a new study says.
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The neighborhood has all the potential elements, including retail anchors such as East River Plaza Mall and La Marqueta, a strong cultural history and name recognition.

"When you say El Barrio no one is confusing you with Hackensack," De Leon Bhargava told CB 11. "One of the biggest issues is how to brand a neighborhood. We don't have that problem."

However, after a few minutes of discussion, it was apparent that the idea sounds easier to pull of than it actually is. There was frenzied discussion about which area should be targeted for a BID and which group would lead the process.

De Leon Bhargava said her division only steps into the process when a community has expressed a strong desire for a business improvement district. That includes having a steering committee that is driving the process and organizing merchants and property owners.

"We don't start the BIDs," she said. "The community comes to us."

There are 67 BIDs in the city that work to improve conditions for businesses in a specific geographic area. That could include things such as maintenance, public safety, hospitality, landscaping and marketing.

New York City has the largest network of BIDs in the country and they invested over $100 million in 2011 to help 16,000 businesses. There have been 23 BIDs created since the Bloomberg Administration took office in 2002.

BIDs are funded via a special assessment on property owners that is usually equivalent to 6 percent  of the real estate tax charge but each BID decides the size of its own budget, with some having a yearly budget of $53,000 up to $11 million.

According to a 2011 retail survey of East Harlem, 90 percent of respondents shopped at one of the four retail corridors in the neighborhood.

However, those corridors were capturing only 30 percent of the $1.2 billion in potential sales. More than 70 percent of survey respondents said they wanted more variety in area retail. For example, respondents wanted less fast food stores and more supermarkets that sold fresh fruit.

"There are things a BID can do in a targeted and focused way to address a lot of the issues businesses are facing," said Community Board 11 chair Matthew Washington.

Jose Garza, executive director of the East Harlem Business Capital Corporation, said the group had spent $40,000 on a consultant to organize a BID for 116th Street from First Avenue to Park Avenue but that the process failed.

"It all fell apart. None of the businesses or landlords were interested," said Garza.

Frank Brija, a member of the CB 11, is also the owner of Patsy's Pizzeria.

"As a landlord why would I want you to do a BID and make my taxes go up," said Brija, explaining that the propensity of BIDs to increase property values, thereby increasing property taxes, may not be viewed as a good thing by some struggling property owners.

"The burden is already enough," said Brija.

Barbara Askins, president and CEO of the successful 125th Street Business Improvement District, was not present at the discussion but said she wasn't surprised to hear about some of the roadblocks.

"They need to call me," Askins said. "There's a process that involves organizing, analyzing and consensus-building. You have to talk to the property owners, you have to have a plan for them to respond to and you have to know the area and what services are needed.

"Reaching out to property owners before having all of that in hand will only scare them," she added.

And creating a BID in Harlem is especially challenging due to the number of non-tax paying entities such as churches and cultural institutions. Areas like 116th Street might seem like an easy option until you calculate the number of residential structures on the street.

Askins said the 125th Street BID, which currently stretches from Morningside Avenue to Fifth Avenue, is in the very early phases of analyzing whether to stretch the district river to river, from First Avenue to 12th Avenue. Despite the BID's 20 year history, the process is daunting.

"This is a lifetime commitment. Once a bid is set up it's a local law," said Askins. Washington said he'd like to have an area chosen and an organizing group in place before the end of the year.

Despite the obstacles, De Leon Bhargava said creating a BID is the next logical step for the neighborhood because it remains one of the areas in the city still considered "untapped."

After Hurricane Sandy, De Leon Bhargava said she saw the power of BIDs at work as they labored to help the rebuilding process in areas that were hard hit. "I feel you can't afford not to do this," she said. Collier agreed and said past efforts shouldn't taint plans for the future.

"History says we've tried this before but you know what? We can try again," she said.