Business Improvement Districts—Agents for Neighborhood Change
San Diego Bid Council is unique in the U.S.
By Christy Scannell
First in a two-part series
In October at the National Downtown Association conference in Dallas, Tiffany Sherer joined representatives from New York City and Oklahoma City to lead a workshop about city government involvement in neighborhood revitalization. She was invited to discuss San Diego’s unique approach, said Sherer, CEO of the city’s Business Improvement District Council. “(The San Diego BID Council) is the only association of business improvement districts outside of government in the U.S.,” she said. “We are a private counterpart to what government does.”
The BID Council was formed in 1989 to bring together what is now a collection of 20 business improvement districts (BIDs) throughout the city to share information and ideas. A portion of the city’s small business license fees funds the organization.
Gary Weber, a consultant who launched several of the city’s BIDs, was also founder of the BID Council.
“I started to hear a lot of similar problems. I thought these people ought to be in the same room together,” he said. “What you have in the BID system is people who share and learn from each other in an organized way. There is great value in that as opposed to neighborhood business districts working on their own, wondering how to get things done.”
BIDs are formed when an area’s businesses organize on their own and then agree through a city-administered vote to create the district. The members then decide on the scope of work they want for their district and the city creates assessments to property owners based on the total cost of those projects. BID member businesses can then vote to increase or decrease those assessments as needs change.
“It’s in each community’s purview to decide what’s best for their community,” Sherer said.
The newest San Diego BID is East Village (Downtown), which was established in October 2009 with 750 member businesses. Lisa Lem was hired as executive director in February.
“We’ve become the voice of East Village,” she said about the BID. “Since this is a big neighborhood, people were searching for who represents our neighborhood. Everybody considers us the resource now. In just a year they’ve identified with our BID rather quickly.”
Lem said the East Village BID hit the ground running, advocating for the permanent homeless intake center and the central library. The group is now planning an artisan market for the open space between 13th and 14th streets south of F Street.
“It would be similar to the Pike Place Market in Seattle and the international markets in Europe,” Lem said. “And it would be an incubator for small business because someone could test new products to see what works on a lower scale.”
The market, which the BID’s special events committee wants to have in place in 2011, would be open three to five days a week. Space rentals will be low to allow for broad participation.
Lem said East Village continues to be a dynamic area but it does suffer from an identity problem.
“One of our challenges is being large and not having a central place,” she said. “Little Italy has India Street. Adams Avenue is Adams Avenue. “But what (East Village BID members) don’t want is to be the Gaslamp District. They are always telling me, ‘I want to be in neighborhood where I can get out and know my neighbors.’”
El Cajon Boulevard
Another BID that is fighting image is the El Cajon Boulevard BID. Its 900 member businesses are peppered along a four-mile stretch from Park Boulevard to 54th Street, cutting through six different neighborhoods.
“(Image) is a big issue,” said Weber, who assists the El Cajon Boulevard BID in land use matters. “There is plenty of opportunity along the boulevard but there is this perception that needs to change that it’s ‘the land of the hookers’ and so forth. That perception is so different from what the circumstances really are.”
Thanks to the BID’s influence, the boulevard’s streetscape has changed dramatically over the last 20 years, Weber said, including new medians, street lights, trees and sidewalks. Member businesses are now anticipating an economic boost from the planned Mid-City Rapid Bus project, which will traverse El Cajon Boulevard, he said. A proposed Little Saigon district in City Heights is also expected to increase interest in the area.
Just south of the El Cajon Boulevard BID’s western end is the North Park BID. Formed in 1985, it was designated in 1995 as a “Main Street” — a project of the National Trust for Historic Preservation that provides resources to revitalize neighborhoods. The North Park district has 530 members in an area from Park Boulevard to the I-805, stretching to Howard Avenue on the north and to Thorn Street on the south.
“Our challenges are always in funding,” said Liz Studebaker, executive director of North Park Main Street. “As a business association we have to get pretty creative in how we raise funds.”
In recent years that has meant bringing people to the district through a popular slate of events such as Ray at Night — the longest running art walk in Southern California — a May arts festival and a farmers market that recently doubled in size. The renovation of the North Park Theatre and construction of a multi-level parking garage has also brought attention to the neighborhood.
“(BID directors) have a lot of pride in our events because those are the community-defining moments when you can draw thousands of people to the district to show what you’ve done with the district and what it offers,” Studebaker said. “In North Park, we have also shown an ability to retain retail and really dramatically increase our restaurant members.”
North Park Main Street is currently campaigning for members to increase their assessments, providing more money for badly needed maintenance, Studebaker said. “We want to offer more street sweeping, power washing, tree maintenance, tree planting and general beautification. Compared to other districts that we consider our colleagues and our competition, we are still lagging in that area,” she said.
Looking ahead, Studebaker said North Park will soon have two of its empty major anchor buildings — the former JCPenney and Woolworth’s structures — occupied with new businesses. She said she also looks forward to the launch of a new Website for North Park Main Street that will include comprehensive information about North Park.
The city’s other Main Street-sanctioned BID is in Ocean Beach. It was formed in 1989 to bring together the 325 businesses on or near Newport Avenue. Executive Director Denny Knox has been involved in the district since the late ’70s when she organized the OB Merchants Association. She said the adjacent beach and the visitors it draws is both a plus and a hassle.
“Not everybody has this lucky location we have,” she said. “But it’s hard to keep a beach community clean. We do the best we can with the limited amount of funds we have.”
Knox said the BID has to pay for new trash can lids every year and it is a constant struggle to keep up with graffiti on the cans.
“People put stickers all over them, thinking it’s the city who owns them but it’s (the BID),” she said.
The Ocean Beach Street Fair — hosted by Ocean Beach Main Street every June – has become a model event the BID would like to replicate throughout the year, Knox said. Meanwhile, the BID is promoting the district through two new brochures that offer self-guided tours of the neighborhood’s community-created murals and historic plaques.
Perhaps the most challenged of San Diego’s BIDs is in San Ysidro. The organization’s more than 600 member businesses are feeling the pinch of new security measures at the border, said Carlos Vasquez, interim director of the San Ysidro BID.
“Our tourism for all intents and purposes has died because people aren’t going into Mexico,” he said. “Our community is fueled by that crossing and if that is obstructed it translates to lots of dollars for us.”
The BID has attempted to stage events that would bring interest to the district but none produced the kind of attention Vasquez has seen other BIDs reap.
“We tried events for a number of years and weren’t successful, I think in part because we were trying to copy other areas,” he said “Our thinking about this has to be completely different for San Ysidro. Our cultural differences mean we need to have a different taste, a different flair.”
Vasquez said the San Ysidro district saw an increase in funding when the Las Americas Premium Outlets opened there in 2001. Decorative street lights, public-area beautification and sidewalk improvements followed the shopping mall’s arrival. But like the other San Diego BIDs, he said, cleanliness and maintenance continue to be a dilemma for the district.
“It’s an interesting time for us,” Vasquez said. “We’ve got the same problems and same challenges (as other BIDs) but for us it’s just coupled with this border thing — it’s either our lifeblood or our death knell. But we’re trying to have a strong collaboration.”
It’s that strength in numbers that fuels the individual BIDs and the BID Council, said Patrick Edwards, president of the BID Council’s board of directors.
“There is a strong feeling that people working together can solve more problems than people working independently,” he said. “When you think of San Diego, you think of the neighborhoods. The BID Council is protecting the quality of these different business districts. If it wasn’t for the BIDs constantly promoting their individual functions, (neighborhood revitalization) could all fall apart.”
Edwards said in light of the city’s recent budgetary challenges, the nationally distinctive San Diego BID Council and its BID members should be applauded for what they have been able to accomplish. “You would imagine other cities would have it more together, but San Diego is really leading the charge on this,” he said.