Soho residents strike back, slam business district plan


By Aline Reynolds

A hotly debated business improvement district for Soho is close to materializing. The proposal, approved by the City Planning Commission last week, now only awaits approval by the City Council.

But many Soho residents vehemently oppose a business improvement district, or BID, contending that it will lead to more crowds in an area that is already jampacked with tourists and shoppers from elsewhere in the city.

The BID, which would extend between Canal and East Houston Sts. along Broadway, would provide sanitation; public safety and visitor services; marketing, promotion and advertising; holiday lighting; and streetscape and storefront improvements.

“Some people look at this and say, ‘It’s a BID — all you want to do is make the neighborhood more crowded, and have more tourists coming here,’ ” said Brian Steinwurtzel, co-chairperson of the BID’s steering committee, formed in June 2009 to create the BID proposal.

“We’re not saying we’re only for that,” he continued. “What we’re saying is there are already all these stores and traffic. We have to figure out a way to deal with it, and we think the BID is the best and proven way to deal with it.”

If the BID wins approval, commercial property owners and residents in mixed-use commercial co-op buildings will have to pitch in around $5,000 per year toward the services, according to Steinwurtzel. All other residents, meanwhile, will have to contribute a token fee of $1 per year.

The planned district was approved unanimously by City Planning on Jan. 26. The City Council wouldn’t disclose a tentative timeline for its vote.

In a report, City Planning recommended that the Soho BID include a residential reimbursement plan that would compensate co-op residents for the annual fees. Co-op residents are legally required to pay the same sum toward a BID that commercial property owners do, according to city Department of Finance regulations.

This co-op residents’ fee was a chief reason why Community Board 2 rejected the proposal. The board’s January resolution states, “There is no mechanism in place to ensure that all residential owners not be assessed more than $1 annually, as is custom in all BID’s in New York City.”

Another point of contention is the more than $50,000 slated for visitor services and marketing of the district. In assessing residents’ concerns, City Planning advised the BID’s steering committee to specify the intended use of the money toward these services.

“Specifically,” Planning’s report states, “this plan should expressly state that funds are included for providing signage and other way-finding tools for identifying the location of businesses, such as a logo and map, as well as providing information to the public about the unique historical character of the district.”

Steinwurtzel said the organization is committed to reimbursing all Broadway co-op residents their $5,000 fees.

“It’s not our intention to charge anything to the residents,” he said. The Soho BID would become the first of all 64 BID’s in the city to offer a reimbursement plan to co-op dwellers, according to the city’s Department of Small Business Services.

The BID, Steinwurtzel noted, should act as an advocate for all stakeholders in Soho. The committee has devoted $250,000 to launching it.

He said he plans to continue to meet with area residents to get their input and will heed their concerns. He also hopes some of them will join the BID’s board, which currently mostly consists of landlords, with just two residents.

“A BID is a place where all the opinions have to be respected, worked on together and agreed on,” Steinwurtzel said. His family has owned real estate on Broadway in the neighborhood since the early 1980’s.

Having a centralized voice for the community could be very advantageous, according to John Pasquale, a member of the BID’s steering committee who owns several properties in Soho.

“It’s important to have a common company that’s going to stay on top of all these concerns,” he said.

Many other Soho landlords, and even residents, apparently agree with Pasquale. Of the 45 percent of those that responded to a survey conducted by the steering committee and overseen by the city, according to Steinwurtzel, more than 90 percent of residents favored the BID, and some 80 percent of all survey respondents supported it.

Local residents opposed to the BID, however, remain convinced it will only serve Broadway’s businesses, and they resent the authority the BID would have in communitywide decisions.

“The main issue is putting the real estate interests in control of our lives,” said Sally Lindsay, who lives in a 12-story loft building at 491 Broadway. “What if I missed the meeting where they decided to put a kiosk in front of my door?” she asked. “We just don’t want that kind of control.”

Lindsay, who has lived in Soho since 1971, has watched the neighborhood evolve from a desolate area to what she calls a “magnificent shopping mall.”

“We don’t want more tourists, Christmas decorators or shoppers,” she said. “It’s the hottest district in New York. It doesn’t need a BID.”

“It’s out of control already,” echoed Peter, a Broadway loft resident, declining to give his last name due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Upward of 100 community members opposed to the BID, including Lindsay, wrote letters to Community Board 2, City Planning and City Councilmember Margaret Chin. Many of them requested that the BID proposal be rescinded altogether.

As a result, in November, C.B. 2 urged the BID steering committee to withdraw the proposal, referring to “overwhelming” opposition from residents.

The board’s resolution states many residents’ concerns that the BID would only exacerbate overcrowding on Broadway, and that its stated mission to increase local tourism would negatively impact residents’ quality of life:

“The BID applicants have failed to convince the public of the necessity of a new business improvement district for Soho, which is a flashpoint for traffic and pedestrian congestion,” the board’s resolution states.

The BID is “self-defeating,” in that it could endanger the very businesses it hopes to promote, according to Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance. More tourists would translate into increased sales, he argued, which could lead to landlords hiking business owners’ rents, eventually forcing them out of the neighborhood.

“This proposal is not a BID — this is a landlord’s improvement district,” Sweeney said. “It’s a pretense to set up a quasi-governmental agency within Soho that would be detrimental to the residents and the businesses.”

BID fees incurred by property owners, he added, would also be passed onto tenants in the form of increased rents.

Steinwurtzel, however, said additional tenant payments would be insignificant.

“The majority of any taxes passed along to tenants will be minor amounts,” he said, “and will only be temporary until their leases expire, since any new lease will be reset to market rates.”

As for tourism, Steinwurtzel assured that the majority of the marketing budget would go toward creating signage for the tourists that are already there — not toward advertising or other means to attract more out-of-towners. Retailers along Broadway have complained to the steering committee that they often feel like tour guides to customers who easily get lost amid Soho’s streets.

“Soho already has a tremendous amount of tourists,” Steinwurtzel said. “It’s more about managing those people, and the traffic they create.”

Improving sanitation for the area — purportedly one of the BID’s main services — is something most community members support. The Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless (ACE), which has hired sanitation workers to clean up Broadway and Soho’s side streets daily since the early 1990’s, will discontinue its service at the end of June due to funding shortages.

“I think everybody is concerned about sanitation,” said Councilmember Chin. “We don’t want the streets to go back to what they were before, with garbage spilling out of garbage cans, and wind blowing it all over. Whether or not you need a BID to supervise the cleaning, though, is up for debate.”

Some people in the neighborhood, however, feel there are alternatives to a BID to get similar services, such as encouraging local retailers to voluntarily clean their sidewalks.

“The pretense of street cleaning is a sham,” declared Sweeney. “What this intends to do is bring more tourists into Soho.”

Forming a BID in order to keep Broadway dirt- and litter-free, Lindsay echoed, is “like building a chandelier to fix a light bulb that’s out.”

“The city is supposed to clean the streets,” she said. “If they don’t clean them enough, the stores will have to get somebody on their own to clean.”

Property owners and tenants are required by city law to clean the sidewalks in front of their lots, though sources say this is not sufficient to keep the streets devoid of garbage.

“They don’t understand that there’s more to it than sweeping up in front of your store,” said Jim Martin, executive director of ACE. Countless Soho visitors, he said, stroll along Broadway each weekend, many throwing trash onto the streets or in the trash bins, which quickly overflow. The city is solely responsible for collecting the trash bags.

“If those garbage cans aren’t turned and bagged,” Martin said, “you’re going to have a disaster.” The garbage problem gets even worse during Fashion’s Night Out and other special outdoor events. (City Planning discouraged the BID’s organizing of such large public events in the neighborhood to avoid crowds and litter.)

Several BID opponents, mainly residents, attended the steering committee’s Jan. 19 meeting to voice their concerns and make suggestions.

“It was a very good meeting,” said Chin, who has been fighting for more resident feedback to be heard on the BID. “A lot of people from the area came and expressed their interests.”

In a phone interview last week, Chin said that she would not support the BID until she sees more resident involvement in the modified plan.

The councilmember said she looks forward to examining the final proposal.

“We want to make sure the residents’ concerns are addressed, and that they will have a say,” she said.

The BID steering committee will hold its next meeting at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, 32 Prince St., on Tues., Feb. 22, to “finalize the district plan according to everyone’s satisfaction,” according to Steinwurtzel, who is holding out hope that, the more Soho residents learn about the BID, the more they’ll realize its benefits.

“When you don’t know what something is, you get a little worried,” he said. “It’s not our intention to make the neighborhood worse. We’re trying to make it better. We’re trying to make this work for everyone in the community.”