Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Downtown Business Improvement District: Time to Join?

Looking Back
When we moved into Penn Quarter in 1995, with the exception of the nightclubs a few blocks away on E and F Streets, our neighborhood was relatively quiet. We had noise issues with the use of Pennsylvania Avenue for what seemed to be an endless series of events, but while that may have been an inconvenience, these were not late night venues. Our problems were related to street-people, skateboarders, drugs and prostitution on C street, rats and trash. The city did not seem to have a grip on any of these issues. At least, that was the perception that I recall. There were not many of us then - probably less than 1,500 residents while now we surpass 8,000 residents.

There was an organization led by Charley Docter named Downtown Housing Now. I was on its board because the Pennsylvania Condominium Association was a member and I was board president. This group worked hard to lobby the city council and mayors office to honor and promote the downtown residential commitment rather than let developers swap residential investments due our neighborhood with other neighborhoods. We also had developers who understood the importance of downtown residents to open the neighborhood into the thriving potential we enjoy today.

Two Changes
There were two seminal events that helped our development. First, we had the development of the MCI center which helped make downtown an entertainment destination center. Second, in 1997, we had the development of the Downtown Business Improvement District (DBID). As a downtown resident, we experienced an improvement in services without a corresponding increase in taxes. Instead of relying on city services to deal with rats, trash, street-people and club noise, the DBID became the central organizing group to respond. The DBID members were the commercial property owners and we benefited by being in mixed-use neighborhoods served by this organization. There were not many residential buildings so the additional cost to serve our streets was small; we enjoyed a free ride. The DBID took over many of the city responsibilities and the commercial buildings were happy to have cleaner streets and the corresponding army of SAMS to have a presence and to help the growing bounty of tourists who came for the host of cultural and entertainment venues that fill our neighborhood. In addition, the DBID works closely with downtown stakeholders and city agencies to keep focus on our neighborhood streetscape, safety, and parking concerns.

Should Residential Buildings Join?
In 2007 and 2008 we collaborated with the Downtown Business Improvement District, the Penn Quarter Neighborhood Association, and the Downtowner Newspaper to produce a survey to help us better understand the profile and needs of downtown residents. In both years, the survey found that over 80 percent of downtown residents would support joining the DBID if residential membership was offered. Our member buildings in the Mount Vernon Triangle section of our neighborhood belong to a Community Improvement DIstrict (CID) that provides some of the services of the DBID. It was set up to ensure that the neighborhood would have resources to be clean and safe. This CID has been instrumental with bringing more trees into the neighborhood as well as park improvements and funding off-duty police officers to improve safety. Residents pay $10 per month for these services.

In the past, I have heard presentation about the value of residential buildings joining the DBID. It has usually been couched in terms of beefing up the number of SAMS and later hours to provide a better street presence. In my personal view (not an official DNA view) it makes sense for all neighborhood beneficiaries to be a member of the DBID. However, I do not see it in terms of more SAMS on our streets or in terms of funding the existing level of services. I think we should join, but only if the DBID can “step up” their efforts for a clean downtown to a beautiful downtown with a defining theme of flowers, trees and greenery throughout our neighborhood. I would like to see their collaboration with the National Park Service to expand to provide us with cleaner, safer parks that can be destination places for neighbors to meet along with playgrounds so that our children, grandchildren, and young visitors have fun urban amenities.

In short, the Downtown Business Improvement District is a resource that we benefit from. The time has come to define our relationship in a way that further improves the quality of life in our neighborhood and gives us a voice in the future of the DBID.

What do you think?
Comments are encouraged, especially concerning whether the Downtown Neighborhood Association should take an active position on this question.

Miles E. Groves


  1. I do not wish to pay more taxes, which joining the BID would require. Nor do I see an enhanced benefit. The city and the park service should fix and maintain parks, streets, and sidewalks through the general revenue, not by extra targeted taxes on residents. If businesses want to pay for enhanced services to better their business, I am all for it. But until I get my moneys worth from the taxes I already pay the city, I see no reason to pay more. I strenuously oppose any attempt to force residents to join a business improvement district.

  2. You are talking about DC, right? The various Improvement Districts throughout our city are not funded by District dollars. The trash throughout our neighborhood is not picked up by District Employees. The major streetscape project that has been approved for Federal Stimulus Funding was designed by the Downtown BID with the assistance of many neighborhood stakeholders. Our parks are not cleaned by the city, but by a collaboration between the Downtown BID and the National Park Service. The street cleaning equipment that runs throughout our neighborhood is provided and operated by the Downtown BID. The quality of life services that we now routinely expect were items we pushed for from the city before their was a BID. Additional amenities, better programming of our parks, addition of playgrounds, and other amenities will not be provided by the District.

    Since residents are not businesses, we do not enjoy the business expense write-off that Downtown BID members enjoy. Perhaps we should push for the BID payment be a credit against our property taxes just as we get a credit for having to use private trash services instead of city trash services.

  3. When I see the surveys asking if residents think joining the bid is a good idea, my question is always, what benefit will we get above what we already get without paying into the BID? Is the benefit the ability to provide input to the BID, or is there more? Additionally, currently the BID doesn't appear willing to get involved in issues the residents have with the businesses (and rightly so). But if residents belonged to the BID, there would be a far higher expectation for the BID to act on resident issues with businesses (trash collection, etc.). Is the BID willing to take that on, or are they just attracted to additional funding?