Proponents of a downtown business improvement district say that planning for Rochester’s future needs to be focused on community needs. BID opponents share that view—but that is where the agreement seems to end.
“For the last few months and today, this effort has been focusing on community engagement to ensure a community-informed process and a rich understanding of what the community wants from their downtown. We’ve made engagement our top priority,” said Galin Brooks, executive director of the Partnership for Downtown Rochester, at a community meeting it hosted Wednesday. Formerly the Rochester Downtown Partnership, PDR is the lead organization in the BID effort.
“This is a long and layered process, but community engagement is crucial to be responsive to community needs, priorities and preferences,” she added.
Others question, however, why this approach is necessary in the first place.
“A lot of times, when we want to get something done, I will get together a bunch of my artist friends and we will pool our resources and we will get it done. We do not need a formal structure to get shit done,” said Kelly Cheatle, the artistic director at balloon art studio Airigami, during a question-and-answer session at the meeting.
“I want to make sure that, as we’re talking about our warm and fuzzy memories of Rochester, we’re not being lulled into thinking that this is the only way we can get things we want,” she said.
While there was optimism and support for the idea of a BID at the meeting, Cheatle was not the only person with her view. Once sparks flew, the discussion became heated and one participant walked out.
PDR and its partner group, Rochester Downtown Development Corp., say this BID development process has had greater public awareness and participation than in other cities. They also understand that people have concerns and think arguments in forums like these can lead to stronger outcomes in the long run.
But the vocal resistance led by the BID Education Committee, a group of artists and activists including Cheatle, suggests the path to that stronger outcome may be very hard to find at the moment.
Investment on the rise
Since 2000, $2.5 billion has been invested in downtown Rochester, including $10 million for the Downtown Revitalization Initiative and a $50 million Phase I award for ROC the Riverway. Constellation Brands’ $50 million headquarters move is the most notable among businesses relocating to the central urban area.
For city boosters and optimists, that amount of financial resources has the potential to remake an entire city, panelists at a Rochester Beacon event last year noted.
“It’s become a fast-moving wave now, and now it’s time to catch it,” Mayor Malik Evans said at the time.
Catching that wave could involve creation of a BID, a special area where property owners self-tax for services and improvements that a government might be unwilling or unable to provide. The recent attempt at forming a BID was part of a recommendation in the ROC the Riverway Phase I Vision Plan, which suggested it as a way for a more consistent level of services in the area.
As part of the PDR, Brooks is at the front of the preliminary development of a BID that Rochester City Council approved in August 2022. The draft plan still must be created, approved by 51 percent of property owners, have a City Council hearing and vote, and receive final approval after a state comptroller review.
Currently, the BID development process has entered a more formalized community engagement stage, which kicked off with Wednesday’s informational session. This stage, which is supported by local outreach consultant Highland Planning, will include a second survey following up fall 2022 efforts, meetings with specific groups such as small-business owners, pop-up events, and increased on-the-ground outreach, similar to the monthly walkstops and office hours already under way.
Pro-BID organizers and the city government stress that the process is still months from being finalized (the earliest timeline for BID approval would be winter 2024), that the community engagement feedback phase will directly affect the drafted plan, and that all BIDs are unique to the laws of their geographic location.
“It’s about creating an area where the needs of the community are being met,” says Brooks, who also serves as the president and CEO of RDDC. “To do this work well, you have to be responsive to the conditions, the wants and needs of the community on the ground that a BID is going to serve.”
Opposition to this effort emerged early in the process. The BID Education Committee, which in addition to Cheatle includes other artists such as Darien Lamen, an educator and media professional who has worked on projects such as the documentary “Clarissa Uprooted,” was originally formed in response to a public art call in support of the BID in spring 2022.
That quickly expanded to include concerns related to board representation, affordable housing, rent increases, private security, transparency, and homelessness. Based on those issues, the BID Education Committee wants the city to vote against BID development and instead invest in “community-led, democratically-accountable initiatives for downtown.”
“RDDC/RDP/PDR made the choice to pursue a BID without gaining consent from the community first. This BID is a solution in search of a problem, and that’s why they are doing public engagement now,” the BID Education Committee said in an email response to the Beacon. “We are moving at the speed of trust, and they have not given the community beyond the board room reason to trust them.”
The committee views the entire BID process as flawed and many in the group have no plans to take part in this new community engagement phase.They believe answers to multiple-choice questions or even their presence could be interpreted as tacit support.
“Honestly, I hadn’t wanted to participate in this discussion,” Cheatle said at Wednesday’s meeting. “Because I feel like anything I say is going to be used as a datapoint toward the creation of this eventual BID.”
What is a BID?
The PDR website defines a BID as “a legally established geographic area, formed when the majority of property owners choose to make a collective contribution toward new programs and services. These contributions fund additive maintenance, improvement, and promotion of the district.”
In practical terms, property owners within a district fund the programs and services from a special assessment decided on by BID stakeholders, although fundraising and applying for grants are a possibility as well. In New York City, assessments make up 75 percent of BID budgets. Brooks says BIDs often are used to fund beautification projects, promotion and marketing, and public art or hospitality services, but BID projects can vary immensely.
“No two are going to be exactly alike,” says Brooks. “You’re supposed to be serving your community. If you’re just replicating a model from somewhere else to the last detail, then you’re not doing it right.”
The High Falls neighborhood has used its BID for cleaning and planting projects, public concert events, mural paintings, and a historical walking tour. Kathryn D’Amanda, owner of MillRace Design and member of the High Falls Business Association, says the overall funding pool is relatively small, $25,000 a year drawn from the nearly 30 businesses involved, but they are able to accomplish a lot with it.
“The (Hochstein at High Falls) concerts were one of the things that really made me feel like ‘Wow, this is a real community,’” D’Amanda says. “It’s incredible what we’re able to do with just a little bit of investment.”
Brooks adds that the funding mechanism with BIDs makes it easier for neighborhoods to access and distribute resources, as opposed to a merchants association, for example.
BIDs typically are run by a nonprofit organization with a board of directors, which is elected by members in the district and must include property owners, merchants, residents, and representatives of local elected offices. In terms of BID leadership, the BID Education Committee is concerned that New York law weighs boards in favor of property owners while giving residents only token representation.
“Property values and wealth are the basis of power. Suddenly community control is based on one dollar/one vote. This is exceedingly unfair, especially in a community where the generational wealth of Black and other communities of Color was stifled by racist housing and lending policies, decreasing the likelihood of racial, gender, and socioeconomic inclusivity in the resulting BID decision making. Policies will likely be based upon the interests of the majority white and wealthy at the table,” the group’s website reads.
Since their inception in the 1970s with downtown areas in Toronto and New Orleans looking for ways to compete against suburban malls, BIDs have grown in number to over 1,000 nationwide with 70 in New York City alone. Organizers with the BID Education Committee are not swayed by a numbers argument, however.
“Pointing to a quantity only demonstrates that a BID can easily be put in place,” they say in their emailed response.
BIDs in Rochester
While BIDs may have been easily established in other areas, including north of the Inner Loop at the High Falls neighborhood and in the town of Webster, an attempt at a downtown BID failed in 2015.
“We aligned with the community’s belief from 2015 (the last time RDDC attempted to create a BID) that a BID would not be good for Rochester. Our view remains the same today,” the committee says.
Their efforts at that time included a petition and survey where 98 percent of the over 240 respondents said the community did not have enough information to approve a plan. While that action initially postponed the vote, Rochester City Council ultimately approved the planning process for a BID last August.
In contrast, the High Falls neighborhood BID was a relatively smooth process. D’Amanda recalls in 2005, after a failed attempt by the city to establish an entertainment district in the area, businesses were encouraged to start a BID instead.
“(The entertainment district) was not an effort from the ground up, not a great idea for improving the area,” she says. “(The city) realized that and wanted us to pick up the ball and take it in our own hands.”
To D’Amanda, that origin story is a good example of how BIDs can be an opportunity for agency, especially for areas that easily could slip through the cracks. The district covering High Falls is tiny, extending from State Street to the Genesee River, and from the Stantec building to the apartments in the north.
She says that because of its size many Rochesterians overlook the neighborhood’s significance and underestimate the diversity of people that live and work there. For High Falls, a BID was a way to assert some of its own control over investment.
“We’re a small area in a big city, why would (the rest of the city) care about investing in our little flowers or murals?” says D’Amanda, who is also a resident of the area. “When we have control of these funds, we say how to use them; we don’t have someone else doling it out to us.”
D’Amanda understands reluctance or confusion when it comes to BIDs, but is upset at some assumptions she has observed in criticism of the potential downtown district. For example, she says the High Falls property owners have not passed on BID membership costs to tenants.
“I would encourage people to get their voices heard, because that’s such an important aspect for success, making sure everyone is listened to. But we shouldn’t jump to conclusions so quickly,” D’Amanda says. “Bad BIDs are bad, good BIDs are good. And you have a chance to make this BID good.”
The BID Education Commitee’s definition of a BID comes from the West Coast homelessness and poverty advocacy group, Western Region Advocacy Project and is similar to PDR’s in defining it as a bounded geographical area. It adds its own perspective, stating that “BIDs use government-collected property assessments to advocate for the enactment, preservation, and strengthening of local and state laws that violate the rights of poor and homeless people.”
This view has been influenced by the actions of BIDs in other cities. For example, activists were sharply critical when the largest BIDs in Portland, Ore. (called “enhanced service districts” in that state) used aggressive tactics and private security to police unhoused individuals in the area.
The committee sees parallels in Greater Rochester Chamber president and CEO Bob Duffy’s support for the BID, suggesting “Red Shirts,” retired police officers, could serve as public safety for the district.
“Aside from great investments, edifices, and attractions, one critical need for downtown is safety, and most importantly, the perception of safety,” wrote Duffy, who previously served as Rochester police chief and mayor, in a February 2022 blog post. “(Red Shirts) gave directions, were helpful, and also provided a sense of security. These Red Shirts were removed during the last administration, but they are being discussed to come back through the BID. I would support that decision.”
In response to Duffy’s blog post, the BID Education Committee wrote: “The first question you should ask is who would feel this ‘sense of security’ with additional surveillance and close connection with the RPD? Would it be the entire community, or just one portion? And who is accountable, or held liable if the private security oversteps their bounds? Are property owners within the BID responsible? In a city struggling to get its Police Accountability Board running, motivated in part by the wake of excessive force used by officers during public protests, this is especially worrisome.”
“I’m familiar with many dozens of BIDs, so that, in my exposure, seems to be the exception not the rule,” says Brooks, who recently learned of BIDs that have a greater use of private security. “There are a lot of BIDs and some of them will always be doing things differently than others.”
She adds that there is sometimes confusion as well with a common BID program of “ambassadors,” which are hospitality staff hired by the district. Their intended purpose is to help with giving directions, picking up litter or helping with small tasks, not for security measures.
Impact on the unhoused
Another example the committee cites is a study in the International Journal of Historical Archaeology on public art projects as anti-homeless efforts. Specifically, it looked at “Rain” in the NoMA neighborhood BID of Washington, D.C., as an anti-homeless effort because it was placed under a bridge that previously served as shelter for unhoused individuals.
“This approach is known to mask the less palatable, yet core aspects of BIDs (charge extra taxes, hire private security, over-police certain communities) with arts, which tend to be universally seen as good for neighborhoods,” the BID Education Committee says. “(‘Rain’) is a prime example of how art can be utilized to exclude marginalized communities.”
Joseph Stefko, chair of PDR, finds that line of research selective and incomplete. He says no one was moved from the space upon the completion of “Rain” in 2018 and later sweeps of unhoused people came directly from D.C. government.
“The implication, of course which is intended to be provocative, that underpass art is anti-homeless is misleading,” says Stefko, adding that the NoMA BID funds direct support for dealing with homelessness.
Brooks, who led economic development for the NoMa BID, points to the successful day center included in the DowntownDC Business Improvement District, another area she helped develop, which has daytime amenities and other supports for people facing homelessness. At the center, people can shower, do laundry, socialize, and also meet with case workers for free every day of the year.
“It’s really an exemplary program and a model for others around the country who are beginning to adopt similar kinds of programs to support people who are living unhoused,” BID consultant Brian Scott said at Wednesday’s meeting.
“RDDC/RDP/PDR are attempting to create transactional allies by tying much needed services or funded opportunities to burnish their efforts,” the committee email response said in the context of services in Rochester.
“The community conversation is critically needed so we can move past incomplete knowledge and move forward to actually understand what’s working and what’s not. What does our community want and not want?” Stefko says.
Moving forward, PDR will continue to build on the outreach efforts it has started. The partnership’s fall 2022 survey drew 554 total respondents, dividing roughly into thirds among residents, workers, and visitors answering questions on their impressions and experiences while downtown.
Brooks says all insights are helpful, but with this next phase in particular, PDR hopes to capture more of the opinions of people living in the area. Residential growth and the diversity of residents living there was identified as one of the strengths of the area. In order to set up a future downtown for those people, any BID needs those voices.
Ultimately, Brooks wants people to see a BID as just one of many tools to improve an area based on what a community needs.
“A business improvement district for our community can be many things. This community engagement piece is at the center of what we’re doing so we can ensure that whatever is proposed is grounded in the realities on the ground and what this community truly wants out of its downtown,” she concludes.
With her experience at the High Falls BID, D’Amanda understands a natural hesitancy toward them but believes they can offer autonomy not available in the current system.
“To be honest, I don’t see city government as doing things very well when it comes to how to improve our neighborhoods. So we either have to get them to do it better,” D’Amanda says, “or we can do it ourselves.”
The BID Education Committee, on the other hand, is sticking firmly to its non-interaction with any district efforts. At a recent informational session, the group identified City Councilmembers Mary Lupien, LaShay Harris, Michael Patterson, and Jose Peo as up for reelection this cycle and said the BID should be a campaign issue for all four politicians.
“The city should use the Roc the Riverway funds for public events and entertainment as the community wanted, not as the RDDC and their aligned interests filling the board interpreted to meet their own desire to create a BID,” the BID Education Committee says.
A petition launched last week by the group calls on City Council to cease any further actions toward the creation of a downtown BID and invest instead in community-led initiatives for downtown. Cosigners to the petition include Metro Justice, 540 West Main, Vocal NY, Rochester Mutual Aid Network, and more. At the time of writing, it had over 300 signatures.
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].