UPPER WEST SIDE — Nearly 20 years ago, when Monica Blum first took her post as president of the newly created Lincoln Square Business Improvement District, the West 60s looked very different.
The medians along Broadway separating north and southbound traffic, known as the Broadway Malls, were stark and dirty, and there were few restaurant options and almost no shopping, she recounted.
But now the BID's coverage area — between West 59th and 70th streets from Amsterdam Avenue to the west and Broadway and Central Park West to the east — is booming, Blum said.
Known as a "home improvement district" due to all its housewares shops, Lincoln Square has an identity beyond the famous arts center its named after.
Lots of new residential development is in the works, and "the more people the better," noted Blum, whose organization is pro-development.
DNAinfo reporter Emily Frost spoke to Blum about how changes to the district transpired and what challenges lie ahead, from homelessness to street infrastructure issues.
Emily: People know you as the head of the BID. Tell me more about your history in the neighborhood here.
Monica: I don't have a history in the neighborhood until I started running the BID. I am from the Upper East Side. I came from government. I spent my entire career in government.
Emily: Can you tell me about that?
Monica: Oh yeah. My first job, it was really my second job, was working for Congressman Ed Koch when he was in Congress. Then, I left and went into city government and I worked at the Department of Investigation. I ran the Complaint Bureau there. It's when I went to law school. I went to law school at night. Then, when Ed became Mayor, I went over to City Hall. I worked there for about a year and a half. Then I went to the Department of Education where I was an Assistant for Personnel and Labor. Then I went to Consumer Affairs. I worked part-time when the kids were little. Then, my last city job, I ran the Mayor's Committee on Appointments for the late wonderful Arthur Lyman. I knew about this job so I applied. I guess I beat out a lot of other candidates because it was a very desirable job.
Emily: Was that when the BID was forming or had it existed?
Monica: It was six months before it became official. I started in October of 1996, so 20 years ago. I was brought on to work on the approval process and then run it. I've been here ever since.
Emily: How did your experience in all those different agencies help you?
Monica: Frankly, having the knowledge of the way the city works has been extremely helpful. I think it still is today because there's still people in government that I know from my years in government. It was very helpful, because we really have to partner with the city.
Emily: Is there an example of when that opened a door for you, or you knew what was possible or not possible?
Monica: I know a lot about sanitation, but that's also partly because my husband also came from government. I just know how the city works and I know how important it is too, I have a lot of respect actually for city employees. I really do. I think that they are often maligned. They work very hard in the trenches. For me, the very first thing I remember doing was the Broadway Malls. They were really in bad shape. We decided, the board decided that we've got to do something about it. Practically one of my first meetings was with the Parks Commissioner where I said, "We have to fix these up."
Emily: What did they look like?
Monica: That were barren. They were weed filled.
Emily: Lots of graffiti.
Monica: Graffiti, weeds, nothing, barren. It was garbage. Just having relationships with the city just makes it easier, or did then, to talk to people about what needs to be done.
Emily: Did you raise money to get all the plantings?
Emily: The BID raised the money itself.
Monica: The BID raises the money. We still do it. We have an ambitious fundraising program. We raise money for three things, Winter's Eve, which we raise a huge amount of money. I think it's huge, beautification, and we get sponsors who commit every year to give us funding. We hire a landscaping company. We partner on some things with Parks, but we do a lot of this ourselves, and then we raise money for some of the smaller, like the summer concerts, but beautification is probably one of the things I'm most proud of, because really we've transformed the way these medians look and the two parks.
Emily: You have that 20-year perspective. What was the neighborhood like back then?
Monica: It wasn't beautiful. It was okay. We had Lincoln Center. It was a great neighborhood. We had a lot of residential buildings.
Emily: Just not as many trees and plants.
Monica: There were no plants at all. The parks were not in great shape. We didn't have a lot of restaurants. We had a limited number of shops. Now, it's really a dining destination and shopping keeps getting better.
Emily: Did you feel like you had a big challenge in front of you?
Monica: I did, but I had an unbelievably supportive board, I still do. I had no idea, frankly, I had never run a nonprofit, but a lot of it's common sense and following the rules, because there are some rules, and getting a good staff. I have a fabulous staff.
Emily: In terms of Lincoln Square as this destination place — it used to also host Fashion Week.
Emily: How do you feel about the fact that we no longer have Fashion Week?
Monica: It was good for our businesses and it created a buzz. People liked it. People miss seeing all these people dressed up in some unusual get-ups and the shoes. The shoes alone were… we took a lot of photographs of shoes. I think it brought something to the neighborhood that we miss. I certainly miss it and I think the businesses do too. We had a great promotion. We did a Fashion Plate Prix Fixe that was a nice promotion, and we haven't come up with something to replace that yet.
Emily: Do you think the businesses are feeling that hurt economically?
Monica: No, I don't think so. The restaurants did a lot of lunchtime business. I don't think they did a lot of dinner business. I don't think that it's hurting them so much as you just miss the buzz.
Emily: It was a boost.
Monica: It was a boost, but also particularly in the fall one. The winter was always cold. It created a buzz.
Emily: A lot of changes are happening in Lincoln Square.
Emily: Another big change is the Riverside Center. That's not exactly Lincoln Square, but it's near enough. There are a lot of other big high rises and developments coming. How do you think that changes the neighborhood? What do you think about this?
Monica: Have you walked up the hill from Riverside Center?
Emily: Not recently.
Monica: It's a steep hill. Are they coming here to shop? I don't know. There's retail going on down along 11th Avenue as well, 10th and 11th. As far as I'm concerned, the more people the better. That's how I feel. I like foot traffic. It was very busy this summer. I hope that more people shop in the shops, and eat in the restaurants, and come to Winter's Eve. We do try to promote further west because our district stops on Amsterdam Avenue on the East Side, but we try to get people to come from Lincoln Towers and Riverside Center.
Emily: Yeah. The luxury developments and the construction, you don't think that's going to hurt things?
Emily: The more the merrier?
Monica: That's our view because we are a business improvement district. More residential buildings, that's good for business. Lowe's opened recently and they're catering to apartments. I don't know if you've been in there, but you go in and all the appliances are smaller, it's really cute.
Emily: It's tailored to city life.
Monica: It really is. It's not what you see in a Lowe's outside of New York or Manhattan. I think it's good for business, whether they're going to eat in our restaurants, I don't know yet. We don't know a lot of information about who eats where or who shops where, but I don't see it as a ...
Monica: We're pro business, so that's really what we're all about except that residents get the benefit for nothing.
Emily: Do residents come to you worrying that these apartment buildings are going to drive up prices and they'll maybe get booted?
Monica: No. They don't come to us because that's not really what we're all about. It's certainly something that you hear about. It's not what people come to us about.
Emily: Is affordability something that you strive for? Having a mix between maybe the high-end restaurants and some of the other more affordable options?
Monica: We like having a mix of restaurants. I will say that it's not easy to find too many real bargains here, but there are some that are more affordable. Many of the restaurants have prix fixes, which is great.
Emily: Were you surprised by Lowe's going in? Do you think that's going to be a trend of more big box stores?
Monica: No, we don't have large… there's not much retail vacancies in the district. Everybody wanted a supermarket because the feeling at the northern part of our district was that there is no supermarket. What I think it's done is, now people think of this as a sort of a home improvement district. Because, we have Gracious Home, we have Lowe's, we have Pottery Barn, we have Williams-Sonoma. We have West Elm. We have Bed, Bath, and Beyond. You can really fill your home. I'm sure I'm missing some. Raymour and Flanigan. We have that and we don't have too many small boutiques, although there are some, but not as many as some people would like.
Emily: Do you worry about the mom and pop shops?
Monica: We don't have too many mom and pop shops. The ones that we do have seem to be okay.
Emily: When you first came into the BID, did this home improvement district exist?
Emily: What was it known for?
Monica: It wasn't. It had no identity. Lincoln Square was known, very frankly, for Lincoln Center. I have always said and this has been my mantra, that we're much more than Lincoln Center. We love Lincoln Center. That is one of the things that brings people to this neighborhood, but there really was very little.
Emily: You said no restaurants, or very few?
Monica: There were a handful. We were just talking about it the other day. There's one left. Fiorello's was here when I started, and Gabriel's downstairs, but there were not a lot of restaurant choices. O'Neil's of course. That's changed dramatically, I think.
Emily: Was there something that spurred this change or was it just as the economy got better?
Monica: I think so. There were lots of residential buildings. There's been a lot of development. We're getting another one, a block away, where the Bible Society was. I don't know if it's going to be rental, or condos. I don't know what they've decided to do, but they'll be more apartments. People who live in apartments need places to eat, shop. Time Warner did a lot to change the neighborhood. It opened in 2004 and really has contributed so much to the restaurant surge. They have a lot of very fancy ones there.
Emily: Yeah. Then the 59th Street Subway, all of the retail going in underground. What do you think about that?
Monica: I think it's going to be great. I think it'll be interesting. It's technically outside the BID. We'll be interested to see how it develops.
Monica: I don't see this as competition. I think, just like the Columbus Circle Holiday Market that goes in every year. I think that's good for businesses. It brings people here and if they don't find what they want, they'll go across the street to Time Warner or they'll go into the candy store or West Elm. I learned this actually from Mike O'Neil. He never was afraid of another restaurant. He felt that it's good to have as many restaurants as possible. Because, people want choices. They don't want to go to the same place every night. I sort of think that's true with retail as well. Diversity and options. I think we're different from any other BID. Because, we say we have it all. We have a very large residential population. We have great retail, we have great restaurants.
We have tons of students. We have Fordham. We have New York Institute of Technology. We have John Jay's. We have the School of American Ballet, and Juilliard, and then high schools across the way. A large residential population. We have a lot of retirees because retirees move here for the culture. It's really an unusual district. I don't think anybody else has that diversity.
Emily: Some people say with the new towers going up, that that's going to tax the subway system and transportation. Street safety is an issue in Lincoln Square. What do you think about the changes that the Department of Transportation is bringing.
Monica: Do you mean bike lanes?
Emily: Bike lanes, and the redesign of the bowtie, which is the area around 65th street.
Monica: Of the bowtie. Right. I'll be very frank with you. I hope that this redesign of the bowtie improves pedestrian safety. The proof is in the pudding. Until it's done, I'm not convinced. Until they address ponding, which forces people out into the streets.
Emily: Ponding is the puddling happening.
Monica: Puddles. I asked DOT the other day if I should bring my ice skates in for the winter. Because so far they've not addressed that and they're adding lots of crosswalks.
Emily: That's like when people have to jump over a huge puddle in the street.
Monica: Yeah, but they don't. What the do is they go around into traffic. I hope it improves pedestrian safety. People are worried about the bike lane.
Emily: Which is getting extended through.
Monica: It's going to come through the bowtie. It will not be protected for a couple of blocks, but it will be there and you'll be standing. There's some new islands and there's an extension of the mall. The bike lane is going to run alongside that and there's a crosswalk there. You're going to step out into the bike lane. I hope it works. I really do. The battle I lost was suicide knot is being expanded.
Emily: What is that, for people that don't know?
Monica: Suicide knot is, it was a tiny pedestrian island right in the middle of the bowtie. Then it was extended about 10 years ago. It was made a little bit bigger, large enough so we could put some planters out there. It was supposed to be a pedestrian refuge. Now they're making it even bigger so that it can shorten crosswalks from Broadway to the middle of Broadway and then to Columbus alongside Lincoln Center. They're doing it in concrete and I wanted it done in brick. I should have asked for brick earlier. I only started asking about a month and a half ago. I'm losing that battle. They're going to do it in concrete and it's not going to look as nice. I'm not going to win on this one. I've tried and gone all the way up.
Emily: Are you winning on the ponding issue?
Monica: I don't know.
Emily: What have you asked for?
Monica: I've asked that it be fixed.
Emily: At a number of different intersections.
Monica: You see, we keep track of where there's ponding. It's all over. Downstairs here, at 60th. What they said was they would address ponding in the bowtie area. So far they have not done anything, but Margaret assures me. I love Margaret.
Emily: Margaret Forgione.
Monica: Yeah. I really love her.
Emily: She's the Borough Commissioner [for DOT.]
Monica: Yeah. She really does try to listen to what I say, or at least what I request, not for me but for the community, as I pointed out to her the other day. I think that I'll still be complaining about ponding after this project is done. I think that I'm quite sure I will. The public is right now not happy because traffic is backed up.
Emily: In terms of traffic, have you seen an increase now that it's closed to cars in Central Park a little bit further north?
Monica: Well, there's a lot of traffic. We don't know if it's because of the construction. They have barriers out and they're doing all this work. We're not sure what's causing it, but there's a lot of traffic backup. Con Ed has a major.. they have to replace a gas line on 64th street. It's a big job. Con Ed seems to be digging up everywhere. It's a mess.
Emily: Does that bother businesses? Or is it just a quality of life thing, lots of honking.
Monica: I think that businesses find, deliveries are a challenge for businesses. I think there's always construction in this neighborhood. Third water tunnel, you didn't ask about that. That's ongoing.
Monica: 62nd is a construction site.
Emily: Supposed to be completed in 2017.
Monica: One thing ends and the next thing starts. There's always something.
Emily: Do you see yourself as the steward of the neighborhood, if something gets roughed up?
Monica: I do. I'm out there constantly. The contractors all know me. I do, I take a lot of pride in this neighborhood. I really do. I think we've actually been responsible for a lot of the improvements, working with everyone because it's certainly not one person or one organization, but when you look at Dante Park, all those red umbrellas and all these tables and chairs, we put out there. All our little information kiosks in the summer.
Emily: You bought those yourselves?
Monica: Oh yeah.
Emily: You didn't wait for DOT on that?
Monica: Oh, no. We replace them as they break. I do apply for small government grants so I've gotten support.
Emily: When people look around, the tables and chairs, the planters, the trashcans, they're all Lincoln Square BID.
Monica: Yeah, but nobody knows that we do it.
Monica: It makes me crazy. Well, I think some people. I think people who know, know, but I think a challenge has always been that it's not Lincoln Center who's doing this, it's us. Despite the fact that…Here, I'll show you my jacket. Despite the fact that all our workers wear these big logo thing.
Monica: Like this.
Emily: Yeah, it's got a big sign on it.
Monica: People don't read.
Monica: That's a little frustrating.
Monica: It is what it is.
Emily: Has homelessness been an issue?
Emily: Have you seen an increase? What is the issue? How are you dealing with it?
Monica: That's an interesting question. The issue is that we have many more homeless than I've ever seen in all my years in this job and in government frankly. I don't know exactly why. I'm not an expert on homelessness. Many of these people are mentally ill, because I don't believe that you sleep on the streets as a choice. I just think there has to be more than just not having a home. Panhandling is not illegal. When you walk this district and further up on the Upper West Side, you'll see a lot of panhandlers. We don't call those in. We keep track, but we don't call them into 311 because they're not going to do anything. If a panhandler is blocking a crosswalk, then perhaps something can be done. They can be asked to move, that's about it. Homeless, we call in at night. We do call them in. Because things really got out of hand. We have emotionally disturbed individuals who've knocked over garbage cans, climbed on my information cart, and the same individual also assaulted our sanitation supervisor.
When that happened, first of all, it was in May, and I hire students to staff this information cart, students and retirees, starting in the summer. I was very concerned about, I can't put students out there. It's not safe. I reached out to the Department of Homeless Services and said, "We've got to do something." Things have really gotten out of control. We sort of convened this task force. We, I made the noise, and then all of a sudden we had all these city agencies and Central Park Conservancy, and Penny.
Emily: Penny Ryan of Community Board 7.
Monica: Yeah. She participated. Parks. We've had a series of meetings.
Columbus Circle was filthy. It was not being maintained as well, you can say that, maintained as well as I think it needed to be. There is no, there was no, and now there is an occasional police presence, but it had become a gathering place for many of the homeless. Also, our block here, 60th, we had a large encampment.
We started having these meetings. We've had three. The first meeting was really a walk of the district to look at all the problems that we had. Then, we've had two other meetings. We've talked about signage, putting signage in Columbus Circle. Columbus Circle is much better now. The public is able to use it. It's being power-washed regularly and it's what it should be, a gathering place. Goddard is responsible for the homeless outreach and they've been responding to our 311 calls every single day. I think they send out a team.
Have they gotten some people into the system? Maybe a few. With cold weather, the numbers are dropping, but Dante Park, we had…I don't remember exactly how many, but last night there were seven homeless in the district that we could see. You can't see everybody. Everyone is trying to deal with what is a very challenging problem. I don't know what the solutions are. I believe that the outreach efforts make a difference. I think that eventually, if people see the right social worker or psychiatrist, or whatever, eventually nobody wants to live on the streets. I just don't think people really, that's a choice. I think it takes a long time to move a big ship but I think that's the way you have to deal with it, so I think the city should be doing more outreach.
Emily: You mentioned signs. What would the signs say?
Monica: For example, there's currently no signage in Columbus Circle. When you put up, we've had a couple of privately owned public spaces where there are rules. No solicitation, no drinking, whatever it is, a series of rules. You put people on notice that certain behavior is just not acceptable. No bathing in Columbus Circle fountain, that gives the police an ability to enforce. There are some people, and I'm inclined to be among those, who think that maybe all parks should have signs saying that they close at 1:00 a.m. I think the rule is 1:00 a.m. until 5:00 or 6:00 a.m.. I think those should be enforced so nobody's sleeping in Dante Park. They don't go into the center. They sleep on the tables, and chairs, and benches. I think those should be enforced.
Emily: A lot of visitors come for Winter's Eve. Can you tell us about Winter's Eve and the history of it?
Monica: The history of Winter's Eve. It's actually sort of interesting. Lincoln Center used to do a wonderful tree ceremony on the plaza. We realized people would go to this tree ceremony and then they said, "What do we do now?" We created Winter's Eve to give them something to do after the tree lighting ceremony, which was a half hour ceremony. Then, in 2008, when Lincoln Center started it's redevelopment, they just canceled the tree, so there was nothing to kick off Winter's Eve. Over the years, it just kept growing. Then, we took over this tree ceremony, which is a bit of a challenge every year, finding a tree.
Emily: You bring the tree from upstate?
Emily: It's music, food, dancing, entertainment.
Monica: Yes. Ice sculpting. It's huge. It costs a lot of money. We raise the money. We have a lot of sponsors and they're wonderful. The way I look at it is, we hire a lot of local talent. I pay everybody. I don't nickel and dime them, I pay talent. I think that you're supporting the artist community, and we try to get a diversity of music. This year, we're having the Chapin Family, which I think will be very exciting. They're going to be 12 of them onstage. I have to build a stage. I have to get a Building's Department permit. I have to, this is a big deal, it really is. We hire a production company.
Emily: I see you have a countdown clock.
Monica: Yes, I got the countdown clock.
Emily: 39 days from today.
Monica: Right. I got the countdown clock because of Mayor Bloomberg. I served on his appointments committee and also the Conflicts of Interest Board. On appointments, I'd go to City Hall, and he had this countdown clock. I said to the staff, "We need a countdown clock." I love it. I can write to people and say, "It's 39 days to Winter's Eve." I write to the board or whoever. It's really fun.
Emily: Yeah. It seems like Winter's Eve is a lot of work. Why do you think it's important?
Monica: Is it worth it? It's interesting that you should ask that. Because, every year, we try to figure out a way to make it more than a 3-hour, one-day event, and we haven't been able to figure that out yet. I think it's worth it. I think that it creates an incredible sense of community. When we started, it was really to bring people to Lincoln Square who had never been here, and to see what else there was other than just Lincoln Center. The idea, and we did it, and we're doing it still, is to try to get people into the stores. Music in the stores. The children's venue will be Raymour and Flanigan. How many people have, unless you're buying a couch, you don't go into Raymour and Flanigan, and maybe you don't go in anyhow.
The fact that they're letting us build a stage there, and they're going to put down a red carpet because it's going to be way in the back, we're turning it into a children's venue. We think the jazz performance will be at Poetry Barn, and then the food part exposes people to some of these fancy restaurants that you would not go to normally. Is it worth it? I think so. I still think that it would be great if we could give it legs.
Emily: You mean like another day?
Monica: Another day, or what we were going to do, I had said, "Why don't we do a scavenger hunt on Saturday." We started looking into it and that's an expensive, that's another couple of thousand, more than that. Then, getting the message out about Winter's Eve is really hard. To have another thing to promote. I don't know. For now, it is worth it.
Emily: Ten years from now, what do you think Lincoln Square will look like?
Monica: I don't know, but I'll tell you one thing. I am not going to come back and say to my successor, "Oh you should have done this, oh you should have done that." I have no idea. I really don't know what it'll look like.
Emily: But you hope the plantings will, the beautification [will stay.]
Monica: Oh, I hope so.
Emily: Thank you for talking with me Monica.
Monica: It's been fun.
Emily: It was really fun.