BID director brings new sense of purpose to the job


By Albert Amateau

Orchard Street, the very name of which has long been a synonym for discount specialty shops, is alive with new commercial activity these days, and the interchange between the old and the new is what makes it an exciting place for Joseph Cunin, executive director of the Lower East Side Business Improvement District.

Cunin, director since June 2004 of the BID that centers on Orchard Street between Houston and Canal Streets, is committed to making it all work.

“The diversity of the business is what makes the district unique,” he said in an interview with The Villager last week. “It’s a place where young entrepreneurs are coming to try out some unusual ideas, like the vegan [ultra-vegetarian] bakery on Orchard Street — and it’s a place where people have been in the same business for decades like Orchard Street Corset. It’s difficult sometimes to figure out how they all fit in together,” he said.

Over the past five or six years, the change has been unprecedented, Cunin observed. “Young people are moving into the neighborhood and landlords who haven’t touched their property in years are renovating,” he said. “There is a real vibrancy in the district but some people who’ve been here for years are having difficulty in figuring out where they fit in.”

The BID has been active promoting the district and is about to publish and distribute a new glossy brochure, “Go East,” that tells shoppers about the little discount shops, the restaurants and events in the district that includes Grand Street from Forsyth to Clinton Streets and Delancey from the east side of Allen to Clinton Streets.

The BID’s Web site, www.lowereastsideny.com, is another recent promotion tool. “It features all our members and provides links to their web sites,” Cunin said. The BID also has a grant for merchants who are not yet on the Internet and who want to develop a basic Web site.

“Dara Lehon, our director of marketing and public relations, is the mover behind ‘Go East’ and our other promotions,” said Cunin. Recent marketing events have included Pickle Day on Oct. 2, which brought Sunday visitors to the food shops in the district, and Fabulous Flip Side, an outdoor fashion show in September featuring clothing by young designers and models walking down an outdoor runway on Orchard between Houston and Stanton Streets. Another BID grant helps merchants and property owners improve the facades of their buildings.

With all the new construction and renovation in the district, including a hotel on Orchard between Houston and Stanton, there are a lot of sidewalk sheds and Cunin intends to transform them from business problems to positive marketing features.

“We’ve got artists and designers to create large artworks for the sides of the sheds. They’ll do it from noon to 5 p.m. on Nov. 6, and turn the sheds into an outdoor art gallery. It may become a rotating gallery that we can put up wherever a sidewalk shed goes up in the district,” Cunin said.

While the proposal to expand the boundaries of the BID district lost momentum a couple of years ago, Cunin said he hopes to explore the possibility again. “Ludlow and Clinton Street merchants are still coming to us, assuming they’re in the BID, and they’re disappointed when they learn they are not,” he said.

The plan for a Greenmarket in the BID is still alive and Cunin hopes it will open in June 2006. Congressmember Nydia Velazquez and the Cornell Cooperative Extension service are providing the funding. All that is needed is the perfect location. Cunin has lined up some possibilities but won’t say where these are yet.

In addition to the assessment from property owners and merchants that fund all BID’s in the city, the Lower East Side BID receives revenue from three large parking lots on Delancey Street to accommodate shoppers and merchants. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development owns the lots — which are in the Seward Park Urban Renewal Zone — and Cunin assumes that, sooner or later, they will become housing sites. “There’s still the controversy over whether some or all of them should be affordable or market-rate [housing], but it’s inevitable that the city will eventually call for proposals to redevelop the sites,” he said.

The BID uses the funds from the assessment and parking lots to provide services like extra sanitation and business promotion.

Cunin was raised on Long Island and has a background in real estate and architecture with degrees from Washington University in St. Louis and from New York University. He worked in the city for a while and then went to Albany, where he ran a small business improvement district for the past few years. “William Kennedy was my neighbor there,” he noted of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist.

Cunin, 41, came back to the city to become director of the Lower East Side BID, and it seems to be a perfect fit. He recently bought an apartment in the Grand Street co-ops.

“Cities are complicated organisms. Seeing how they work, making them work — and finding the right balance between stability and change — is intensely interesting and a real challenge,” he said.