PROGRESS REPORT: WE don’t need a bigger BID, we’ve got a great NID

Photo by Rebecca White

Sean Sweeney at a “Meet the Candidates” event last year.

BY SEAN SWEENEY | New York City is renowned for firsts. The first capital of a new nation, the first successful steamboat voyage, the first Yiddish daily, the first 3D film show (1915), the first African-American major league baseball player, the first skyscraper, the first subway, to name a few.

Now there is another first — in our own very backyard: Soho’s NID.

The Neighborhood Improvement District, or NID, is a grassroots, all-volunteer effort dedicated to removing the trash left behind by the countless shoppers and tourists who throng here.

The Neighborhood Improvement District is the Soho community’s response to those corporate, real estate-driven, tax-dependent Business Improvement Districts a.k.a. BIDs that have sprung up in the past 30 years.

This novel initiative arose when ACE, a jobs-training program that maintained Soho’s sidewalks for more than 20 years, ceased its Soho operation in 2016 and moved to Queens. Within days, our sidewalks were bestrewn with the detritus of careless shoppers and our trash cans overflowed with their litter.

The Soho Alliance quickly sent out a request for self-sufficiency — namely, for property owners and stores to sweep their own sidewalks. Most complied.

But their good efforts were thwarted when winds would blow the litter from overflowing trash baskets onto the freshly swept sidewalks. The problem was Sisyphean in scope, because no matter how hard we tried, the sidewalks were always littered.

Within a short time, a meeting was called to address the problem. The first speaker suggested the formation of a Business Improvement District but that idea was quickly and unanimously rejected.

No one wanted well-financed corporate control and influence over our community, not to mention the increased taxes a Soho BID would bring — estimated to be as high as $10 million annually. Moreover, a significant portion of the budget would go toward BID staff salaries and not to upgrade the neighborhood.

A 2013 real-estate-inspired BID on Broadway divided the Soho community. Within a couple of years its annual budget has ballooned to $900,000 — derived from taxes on the Broadway businesses. Is it any wonder The New York Times recently ran a story on the many empty storefronts that have sprung up along Broadway since the BID was created? With avaricious landlords — the ones who created the BID – asking unrealistic rents, what business can survive with an additional tax burden?

Seeking to avoid this problem from spreading throughout Soho, a nonprofit, #CleanUpSoHo, was formed. The activists who make up #CleanUpSoHo reflect Soho’s current reality: The Mendez Soho Salon showcases the works of prominent artists; Soho Strut centers on retail and small real-estate interests; the Soho Alliance represents the residents and small business.

The new group worked with the Department of Sanitation to get more trash pickups and compliance with litter control. After all, considering the enormous revenue that Soho generates for the city in terms of sales and real-estate tax, shouldn’t we at least get decent sanitation service? But additional service was not in Sanitation’s budget and our sidewalks remained a godforsaken mess.

Much of the litter results from the overflow of the wire trash baskets that the city provides, baskets that might suffice in a residential neighborhood but not in an area that attracts tens of thousands of people daily.

So #CleanUpSoHo reached out to residents and businesses and has procured oversized, heavy-duty litter baskets installed at almost every intersection, replacing the inadequate wire baskets the city provides. These new handsome receptacles have worked remarkably well at solving the litter problem.

Furthermore, the City Council through the office of Margaret Chin provided $60,000, which #CleanUpSoHo has used to hire Wildcat Services, a jobs-training problem similar to ACE. Wildcat’s workers now service the trash baskets daily, as well as painting over graffiti. And it does so at a fraction of the cost that a BID would charge. Council Speaker Corey Johnson has also graciously funded our cleanup efforts in the form of extra trash baskets and street-sweeping services.

Unfortunately, ACE’s disgruntled founder, a Soho gazillionalre, instead of embracing and supporting #CleanUpSoHo, has now joined with large real-estate companies to form a BID to cover all of Soho.

Rather than doing the right thing and complementing the Council’s $60,000 to cover Wildcat’s next six months, the group has instead self-servingly come up with $60,000 to pay a hired gun to ram the BID down the throats of Soho’s residents and small businesses.

Where this goes remains to be seen. But can anyone deny that a grassroots volunteer organization of residents and small businesses is far better than a landlord-controlled BID?

Sweeney is director, Soho Alliance

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