New York’s Shadow Mayors: The BIDs That Ate New York
Laura Kusisto April 5, 2011, 7:25 p.m.
Eight floors above the neon scissor of Broadway and Seventh Avenue, the offices of the Times Square Alliance, one of the city’s largest business improvement districts, unfold like a suburban paper company.
The Observer contemplated the turquoise Berber carpeting, the spare glass cubicles and an empty rolling garbage bin parked by the door until we were ushered into a bright corner office occupied by the alliance’s president, Tim Tompkins. He greeted us with news that would eventually reverberate globally: Waiters could be coming to the bright red tables in Times Square.
In a tan suit with a brightly colored tie and thick brown hair, Mr. Tompkins perched on a child-size ivory divan. A counterpart of his, we recalled, was once dubbed the “mayor of midtown.” Despite a humble profile, the Times Square Alliance deserves credit for transforming a neighborhood where a New York Times newsboy once had his face slashed into the throbbing international discotheque of today.
The alliance’s voting board reads like a roll call of the city’s power brokers: Viacom, Marriott, Condé Nast, SL Green, the Durst Organization, the Schubert Organization and Cravath, to name just a handful. For years, they’ve paid annual fees into a multimillion-dollar budget used to provide additional security, pick up garbage and promote tourism. They’ve done so with robust cooperation from the Bloomberg administration-until recently.
Macy’s last month announced it was rerouting its Thanksgiving Day parade down Sixth Avenue, which would deal a sizable blow to Times Square retailers, hotels and advertisers. Mayor Bloomberg, normally a lusty booster of BIDs, sided instead with Macy’s. “People were dumbfounded by the announcement,” a prominent member of the Times Square Alliance told The Observer. They “couldn’t believe that the mayor was turning his back on all of the businesses in Times Square in favor of Macy’s.”
Mr. Tompkins’ stance is more conciliatory: He’s met twice recently with Deputy Mayor Robert Steel, the administration’s economic development czar, who listened respectfully to the BID’s concerns. “We’re encouraged by his thoroughness,” Mr. Tompkins said.
Resisting our attempts to probe further, and after hours of media interviews that day (mostly because of the Times Square table service), he massaged the space between his eyebrows and looked out the window.
Clearly, our audience was at an end.
MILLIONS WHO LOUNGE on the patio furniture in Times Square, sip lattes unmolested in Bryant Park or browse for apples in Union Square do so thanks to benign shadow governments known as BIDs. There are 64 such capitalistic collectives and counting, each birthed by at least a 51 percent vote of area property owners. Every year, the owners, whether they voted for the BID or not, pay a mandatory annual fee (a tax by any other name) that can climb well into the thousands each and that goes toward additional garbage collection, street patrols and tourism promotion, in turn helping to boost property values in the neighborhood. Under the Bloomberg administration, BIDs have boomed, with 20 new ones formed in the past decade. Few give them the credit they deserve for transforming large swaths of New York City into pastoral urban paradises. Few know they exist at all.
The ceaseless grime and crime of 25 years ago prompted wealthier Union Square business owners, led by the chairman of Con Ed, Charles Luce, to unite to clean up the central green space. Their success in turning the neighborhood into a bustling center of commerce with some of the highest property values in the city inspired business owners in other neighborhoods to follow suit.
“We have a big messy city that has to be taken care of,” said Sharon Zukin, a Brooklyn College and City University Graduate Center professor and author of Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. “So they allow and, under Bloomberg, encourage [businesses] to take on these common responsibilities.”
By the mid-1990s, BIDs had grown so influential that Daniel Biederman-once dubbed “the mayor of midtown”-rattled the honest-to-God mayor, Rudy Giuliani. The charismatic Mr. Biederman commanded three of the city’s most powerful BIDS, covering Grand Central, Bryant Park and 34th Street, but Mr. Giuliani cut off funding to the Grand Central Partnership, forcing Mr. Biederman to resign that post. Some say the real mayor also quietly stymied the growth of BIDs all over the city.
In his first weeks, Mayor Bloomberg declared a truce with BIDs as part of a general thaw in the city government’s attitude toward local business. The mayor took a walking tour with the inimitable Mr. Biederman around bucolic Bryant Park. “We wouldn’t have the vaguest idea how to do this,” Mr. Bloomberg said, according to Mr. Biederman’s account. “The fact that you’ve done this with private money is great.”
“One of the fundamental tenets has been smart delegation,” Dan Doctoroff, Mr. Bloomberg’s first-term deputy mayor for economic development and a major architect of the jump in BIDs, told The Observer. “We believe that up to a certain point the business community in an area had the best sense for what would work for their community.”
Most credit the revival of the BID movement to a single brilliant appointment nearly 10 years ago: Robert Walsh, the former president of the Union Square Partnership, who took over as head of the Department of Small Business Services. Mr. Walsh replies that the mayor has been enthusiastic from the beginning, good-naturedly encouraging him to form more BIDs even where they’d previously failed: “The first conversation I had with him, in January of 2002, he ended up talking about Fordham and why isn’t there a BID on Fordham Road,” Mr. Walsh recalled of the area in the Bronx. “That’s one of the BIDs that we’ve been able to create.”
Mr. Walsh cites numerous neighborhoods where more BIDs could go: 116th Street near Columbia; Broadway and 168th Street near Columbia Presbyterian; Staten Island; numerous neighborhoods of the Bronx, such as Woodlawn; his own Brooklyn haunt of Carroll Gardens; everywhere!
Somewhat paradoxically, as their number and influence have ballooned, BIDs have faded from the public mind since the days when Messrs. Biederman and Giuliani sparred in the dailies. Their boards are dotted with names like Viacom, Disney, Grand Hyatt, Time Equities, Boston Properties and Tishman Speyer, but the people running them are usually longtime municipal hands with pragmatic-one could say modest (tulips! Benches! Slightly less graffiti!)-goals. The city’s largest BID, the Downtown Alliance, is headed by Liz Berger, a lawyer by training who served as a City Council liaison under the Koch administration. She commands a budget of $17 million to pay for a 58-member sanitation team and a 59-member red-coated security force.
The Grand Central Partnership, which encompasses some of the most valuable commercial property in the world (think midtown’s top-shelf skyscrapers), is overseen by Alfred C. Cerullo III, who has occupied the post since 1999 and also serves on the City Planning Commission. His current priority? “Spring is here and snow is going to be falling in the next 24 hours,” he said, fretting this would make it difficult to plant thousands of flowers. After 32 years in the BID trade, Daniel Biederman continues to head the 34th Street and Bryant Park fiefdoms-though he recently ran into trouble over an alleged $120,000 gift to a Bronx skating rink out of the 34th Street Partnership’s coffers.
They’re now being followed by up-and-comers like the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership’s Joseph Chan, Hudson Square Connection’s Ellen Baer, and Brigit Pinnell, who recently moved from the Jamaica Center BID in Queens to the Montague Street one in Brooklyn Heights.
STILL, NOT EVERYONE’S keen on the increasing privatization of the neighborhood watch.
Longtime Soho residents gathered last Tuesday in the basement of St. Anthony’s Church at 154 Sullivan Street and heckled Brian Steinwurtzel, of the major real estate company Newmark Knight Frank, and a consultant, Barbara Cohen. They were proposing-what else-a BID representing streets from East Houston to Canal on lower Broadway, one that would have an annual budget of $700,000. “Do you live here?” one person at the meeting shouted (many of the opponents, mind you, didn’t live on Broadway, either).
Eighty percent of local business owners favor the BID, according to a vote, and so does the City Planning Commission. Margaret Chin, the local councilwoman, doesn’t support it in its current form, but no matter: The owners are likely to get the support they need from the administration and the City Council. They will likely soon become the 66th BID (right behind Chinatown).
In the minds of die-hard Soho residents, the kind routinely freaked out by gentrification, it amounts to a garbage-collection coup by powerful landlords. But the alternative could be a Naples-like trash disaster in summer’s dog days.
“How many times a day would the city be able to empty a trash can, or be so detailed to remove that graffiti off a post?” Mr. Walsh said of BIDs in general. “In a perfect world, BIDs wouldn’t exist.”