Secret vote on the Soho BID was some tricky business

Local residents who oppose the Broadway Soho BID hope it doesn’t do anything further to “put Soho on the map” for tourists.  PHOTO BY MILO HESS
Local residents who oppose the Broadway Soho BID hope it doesn’t do anything further to “put Soho on the map” for tourists. PHOTO BY MILO HESS

BY SEAN SWEENEY  | With no public announcement or fanfare, after three years of delays and hunkersliding on the issue, this past week City Councilmember Margaret Chin suddenly and unexpectedly persuaded her Council colleagues to approve a controversial business improvement district on Broadway in Soho — less than a month after her re-election in a hard-fought Council race.

The speed and secrecy Chin employed to get the long-delayed Broadway Soho BID approved so immediately after her primary election represents, to many, a low point in political cynicism and vindictiveness, even by New York City standards.

The contentious BID proposal was delayed for three years due to vigorous opposition from residents and small businesses, who asserted that a BID was unnecessary, as well as an additional tax they could ill afford.

After all, retail business and rents are booming in Soho, especially along the Broadway corridor, which commands some of the highest retail rents in the city. Why is an added tax needed to “improve” it?

Moreover, the tax to fund the BID’s effort at cleaning the litter left behind by the throngs who shop at the ground-floor retail chains will substantially be paid for by rent increases levied on the independent, small, creative businesses on the upper floors — hardly fair.

Assemblymember Deborah Glick and state Senator Daniel Squadron, agreeing with a unanimous community board vote and several newspaper editorial boards, did not support the BID, while Chin remained its biggest booster.

Yet, paradoxically, Chin and the BID steering committee, led by real estate giant and prominent Chin campaign contributor Newmark & Co., have not publicized passage of the BID that they have been championing since 2010, keeping the public in the dark.

In another odd — and undisclosed — development, on Sept. 3, just one week before her primary election, Chin drew up an unsigned memorandum of understanding between herself, the BID committee and a few undisclosed residents. The document partially incorporated many of the demands Soho activists had pushed for — presumably to be used later as Chin’s defense that the Soho community wants and accepts her BID. For the record, nothing has changed: Many Soho residents and businesses continue to oppose this real estate-driven scheme.

Furthermore, since Chin was trounced in Soho in the primary election, some believe the speed with which she requested the BID vote after years of delay was retribution for her defeat at the polls there.

In short, it appears that Chin couldn’t wait to pass her pet project soon enough after her election, so she took precious time off her campaign to ensure that the BID would be approved immediately after her primary victory, despite dawdling on it for three years. Clearly, she wanted passage of the BID but cynically sat on it until after she was re-elected, fearing the BID’s passage would hurt her at the polls. Seeing how Soho voters rejected her at the polls, this was her swift vengeance.

Many of the points that Soho activists fought for were incorporated into the memorandum of understanding, and this, they believe, is a victory and vindication of their hard-fought efforts, despite their belief that the BID is still not needed.

For example, the Broadway Soho BID will have a 50 / 50 representation of residents and business owners on the BID board of directors — the first for a BID in New York City. Generally, only one resident is permitted on a BID board.

Another point residents fought for was equalizing the BID tax that co-op and condo residents would pay. Originally, condo owners were to be charged $1 a year, but co-op residents would be assessed hundreds of dollars.

Also, initial incentives for attracting yet more tourists to Soho were dropped from the BID’s mission. Instead, the BID’s services will now basically be restricted to sanitation and security.

In addition, the overall tax assessment on businesses was reduced from $750,000 to $550,000.

Pete Davies of the Broadway Residents Coalition said, “Our goal has always been to solve the problems that big retail brought to Broadway in Soho. Many in the neighborhood have worked long and hard to make the Soho BID proposal a more fair plan. When the government grants a BID the authority to tax, that action carries great responsibility. Those behind the BID have made many promises for Broadway and now they have their work cut out for them.”

After delaying a vote for years, the Council’s Finance Committee, last Wednesday morning, suddenly voted on the BID — apparently with no notification whatsoever to any landlord or stakeholder. From there, the bill immediately went right to the City Council that very same afternoon, where it was approved.

After the city’s glacial pace on the BID the last three years, why was this done in such secrecy, with no transparency and, basically, behind closed doors, with the public kept in the dark? A Council holding a public meeting where the public is not invited nor informed is in sharp contrast to the numerous meetings on the BID over the past three to four years.

In August, at a debate between Chin and Jenifer Rajkumar hosted by The Villager and Downtown Express, Chin was asked during the “lightning round” — “Broadway Soho BID, yes or no?” After several seconds of delay, Chin responded, “It’s passing.”

Also, the recent M.O.U. was devoid of the names of residents who Chin claims support the proposal and who will serve on the BID’s board of directors. It appears the Council was given a tabula rasa, a blank document, to approve. In other words: Pass the bill based on a blank M.O.U., the signatories of which we shall provide later.

Last week, we asked Chin’s Office to supply the names of the residents whom she claims will serve on the board of directors, but got no response as of this week.

It doesn’t bode well for Soho’s acceptance of the plan.


Sweeney is director, Soho Alliance