What Do Business Communities Do Now?

The President of the Hudson Square Business Improvement District has some ideas

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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to force businesses to remain shut, commercial districts, business leaders and business communities like Business Improvement Districts (BIDS) are thinking about what to do to protect business and districts today and plan for the eventual reopening.

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What reopening will look like becomes clearer with each passing week.  We know we will need to continue to practice social distancing, for example, and that will impact office spaces and also lines to get into offices, restaurants and retail shops.

At the same time, much remains unknown, like when people will feel comfortable coming back to work. BIDs are certainly part of the equation in creating a new safe space, but like everyone else, are navigating uncharted waters.

But we can learn from past experiences. And, we will have to tap into our collective creativity to imagine work, retail, restaurants, entertainment, sidewalks and public spaces in what will be a new reality.

A decade ago, during the Great Recession, we started the Hudson Square BID. Back then the neighborhood, a former printing district, was mainly known for rush hour streets packed with cars bound for the Holland Tunnel. Our loft buildings were half full and there was almost no commercial business or pedestrian traffic. What there was, was plenty of opportunity to imagine a new, vibrant district.

In the past 10 years, fueled by careful strategic planning that took into account the void a new district could fill, and the support of the city and the business community, we saw vacancies decrease 300 percent, development go from zero to 4.75 million square feet, a doubling of grab-and-go establishments and daytime pedestrian traffic increase from 30,000 per day to 70,000 per day. And now what we are known for is our thriving creative sector – 60 percent of our workforce is employed by a technology, media or communications company – and as the future home for Google and Disney headquarters.

But, that’s all B.C. – before COVID-19.  Since the shutdown, our pedestrian traffic has dropped over 80 percent, 87 percent of retail businesses have closed, and many of our other businesses have had to reinvent themselves.

For example, Adafruit, a maker of tools, equipment, and electronics, is now producing face shields for healthcare workers. Vivvi, an employer-sponsored childcare center, is providing 12-hour childcare for medical professionals and other essential employees, and Deborah Miller Catering and Great Performances, which would normally be catering galas and other big events, have shifted to feeding frontline workers and the homebound elderly.

Most businesses and business communities will have to reinvent, at least in part.  And business leaders across the city – and across the nation – are working furiously to figure out how to reinvent to secure the future of businesses, retail, and our once-vibrant commercial districts.

In the Hudson Square BID we are harnessing our resources and strengths to aid in the recovery, particularly as it relates to reviving ground floor retail and ensuring pedestrians can navigate streets and patronize retail and food and beverage establishments safely.

For example, our pedestrian safety managers, who typically work our intersections, could be redeployed to manage pedestrian traffic patterns and ensure social distancing.

We are considering moving furniture in front of stores to create more outdoor seating for diners; thinking through ways to manage lines outside of retail spaces; exploring options of creating take-out windows for food and beverage retailers; and adding temporary bike docks to  make our district more convenient for the increased bike ridership we will likely continue to see.

And, in districts where public spaces were crucially important before – our Freeman Plaza West space, just one of our seven public spaces, saw about 34,000 people during the warmer months of 2019 – re-imagining how we set up, clean and manage those spaces will be necessary.  We know people will need outdoor spaces more than ever.

It’s a lot to consider amidst much uncertainty.  And there is much pressure daily to just think about survival. But BIDS exist to create vibrant districts no matter the obstacles.  And we are doing just that, in partnership with real estate sector and corporations — designing ways to help bring people back to work and back out onto the streets, where we know they want to be.

Ellen Baer is the president of the Hudson Square Business Improvement District.