Integrating citizen residents into "business" improvement districts: Capital Riverfront district as an opportunity and example of the need for change
Business improvement districts are commercial district management and marketing organizations that are sanctioned by local jurisdictions as managers of public space and other activities within a defined geography. They were created to provide extranormal services that increasingly were beyond the capacity of a city to provide and typically were organized in the main business district of a city, although many cities have multiple BIDs.
They are funded by an add-on assessment to commercial property taxes. As a result, leadership and agenda of the organizations tends to be dominated by property owners, although there are usually slots for retail business tenants as board members. By default, the organizations become the day-to-day managers and long range planners for the public space within their defined districts.
An issue is that BIDs are two different functions in one, a financing mechanism and a community manager. It's possible to split the functions, or to organize them differently, but for the most part that kind of nuance eludes elected and appointed officials.
There are some variants of the format, where resident interests are engaged both as taxpayer funders of the organization (this can be controversial, e.g., there is a vocal group of opponents to the Charles Village Community Benefits District, which includes both residents and businesses as tax paying members, that hasn't stopped resisting since the organization was created in the 1990s) and as board members, but this is rare.
San Francisco has a program that allows for a variety of types of districts, which can include resident participation, including participation as board members. San Diego's BID financing program is used by some neighborhoods as a way to fund Main Street oriented commercial district revitalization initiatives, which are more ground up community involved approaches, than the typical top-down BID approach dominated by large commercial property owners, although board membership still favors business owners.
A problem comes up as these districts become more mixed use, with a large residential component, because there are few if any provisions for adding residents to oversight boards of the organizations. You can't expect an apartment building owner represented on the boad of a building to be advocating very well for residential interests if they are opposed to the interests of property owners.
While everyone appreciates well managed "public spaces," they become more mall-like and private and lose some of their public character and potential for spontaneity when the public has limited say in how they are managed.
This type of the issue is likely to come up more often going forward as business districts become increasingly residential and cities increasingly work to offload management and financial responsibility for operating "new" parks--instead they are concerned with coming up with the money to manage their existing footprint (e.g., "Can Columbia afford to operate 56 public parks?," Columbia (SC) State).
Business improvement districts are the entity most likely to be parks managers in urban mixed use districts.
A few years ago I wrote a piece, "NoMA revisited: business planning to develop community," about the NoMA district in DC, which when it is built out, will have between 6,000 and 7,000 residents.
I recommended that DC plan for mixed use commercial-residential districts by changing the organizational format of "B"IDs to CIDs--community improvement districts--and provide a way for residents to be represented on newly reorganized CID boards and in the management oversight of the organizations.
NoMA isn't the only place where this recommendation is relevant.
The last couple days I spent in meetings related to the 11th Street Bridge Park project, and this came up in a discussion about management of the proposed park, policies, and civic engagement.
Someone mentioned that the Capital Riverfront "business district," the area around the Nationals Stadium and the US Department of Transportation, which is increasingly dominated by multiunit residential buildings. According to this article, "Navy Yard/Capitol Riverfront: After a Rain Delay, the Stadium’s Boomtown Starts to Deliver" from Urban Turf, the district is expected to have as many as 5,000 residents next year, although most, a mix of condos and apartments, will live in large multiunit buildings.
Yards Park (pictured at left) and Canal Park, which are public parks, owned by DC, but managed by the local business improvement district, and built by private interests as part of development agreements.
As much as the parks are used and loved, in the meeting someone mentioned that there is some "community" resentment about the pricing structure for using the facilities in these parks, that the pricing structure is oriented towards maximum reventue generation and less on enabling community participation.
What happens is that the management of public facilities is in effect, privatized, because of limited oversight of and civic participation in the "nonprofit" "community serving" organization that is more a property manager than a civic engagement enabler.
While there is one residential property owner, a condominium owner, on the board of the Capital Riverfront district, and there are some slots for community stakeholders as ex-officio members membership is overwhelmingly dominated by commercial property owners.
This BID, and others, are good candidates for conversion to CIDs.