Losing BID

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Business is tough on Brownsville’s Pitkin Avenue. On tax-free Labor Day weekend, parents and kids stock up on school clothes. Yet at a furniture store stacked with dressers and desks, customers first ask about credit and walk out, disappointed, without even examining the goods. A watch store makes a handful of $2 repairs in an hour, but no sales. Meanwhile, pawn shops are the only stores to attract long lines of customers–and, in recent weeks, a string of armed robberies.

The avenue itself looks worn out. Every garbage bin is overflowing, and trash scuttles down the street. Discount stores have installed generations of signs on top of one another. The fact that the area is a Business Improvement District, or BID, is clear only in scattered banners and brown paint on store gates touched by an anti-graffiti campaign.

On Pitkin Avenue, the BID has not accomplished much for the neighborhood, say merchants–and its own directors don’t disagree. What it has done, many storeowners say, is support, with funds and access to city government, a small group of Manhattan investors who own local property.

When Manhattan commercial districts started to tax themselves in the 1980s to fund extra services, BIDs became a fairy tale for an era of shrinking government, credited with reviving commercial areas through activities like graffitti and trash cleanups, security patrols and street fairs. In the past decade, their numbers have jumped from seven to 40 citywide with help from the city’s Department of Business Services, which included BIDs in many neighborhood economic development plans.

Until the Giuliani administration soured on BIDs and tightened city control over the groups, they “were being rushed through–rubber-stamped,” says Amy Klein, a staffer for the City Council Finance Committee. The committee prepared two reports that found that many BIDs were an “unaccountable micropolis.” And it found that proposed new BIDs could sail through unless at least 50 percent of property owners filed objections. That policy paved the way for the business groups to sprout without substantial community support.

Pitkin Avenue is a legacy of that laissez-faire: a BID that has managed to persist–and use its legal authority to tax local businesses–even as it antagonizes the businesses it’s supposed to help.

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Pitkin Avenue has a small budget for a BID: $125,000 assessed from owners according to their properties’ square footage, passed on to 200 commercial tenants who pay about $700 a year in BID fees for a small storefront. The city treats these assessments like local taxes, meaning that businesses that don’t pay the bill risk fines and a lien against their property.

Pitkin Avenue is the main commercial strip for an almost entirely African-American community. Yet when asked where to find black-owned stores, shoppers don’t get further than World of Gospel, a 22-year-old basement music store, and a Burger King.

Instead, there are middle-aged Jews, a few of them holdovers from when it was a Jewish neighborhood, some running stores that have been family-owned since the last century. There are Korean immigrants who set up shop here in the 1970s, when no one else would take the risk. In smaller numbers, merchants from the Middle East and South Asia run small storefronts but almost never live in the neighborhood.

On a street where most merchants are understaffed, overworked and suspicious of outsiders, few are ready to talk to a reporter. Some of those who do are not even aware of the BID’s existence, while those familiar with it say they’re not satisfied with its performance. A few are quite angry.

“They screwed me,” says Al Katz, who pays a $1,000-a-year assessment on his furniture store, which is housed in a building he owns. “You go to any storeowner on this block and he’ll tell you the same thing.” Although he knows many of the other Jewish proprietors in the area, Katz feels no tie to the tight circle of property owners who hold much of the commercial real estate in the area–and dominate the BID’s board accordingly. “Six to seven years ago there was a merchants’ association run by the same people,” he says. “They didn’t do nothing before and they don’t do nothing now.”

According to Justin Shon, whose father owns a watch store and a ladies’ accessory shop, many immigrants don’t participate in the Jewish-dominated BID because they lack adequate English and are reluctant to ask for help. “I don’t know if the BID is meant to attract Korean merchants,” Shon says, noting that the BID has been pushing chain stores–big competition that could wipe out their small businesses.

BID executive director Alan Schuman is far from visible on Pitkin Avenue, working there just two days a week. He answers to the BID’s board, which consists of property owners, merchants and a community representative. But several board members concur that the BID is run by a group of real estate owners who hold entire blocks of the neighborhood.

Most prominent among these Brownsville power brokers are BID president Jack Dushey–his son Sammy and a cousin are also on the board–and Norman Rappaport, who by his own count owns one of every seven buildings on Pitkin Avenue. It was Dushey, who is also active in three other BIDs and keeps his own office on Madison Avenue, who agitated for a BID in 1992.

The concentration of power with property owners is also a product of city BID bylaws, which require the groups to be run by building owners. Accordingly, only two out of 16 Pitkin board members are designated as merchant representatives. BIDs are also required to have a neighborhood resident on their boards. But Kathy Bryant, who is listed as the resident member, does not live in Brownsville; her local connection is her job with Council member Tracy Boyland.

With power so centralized, even board members are feeling squeezed out. George Wollinsky, who runs an electronics store, believes that he was asked onto the board only “to make the right number of people to have a BID–when I wanted to get in deeper, I couldn’t.” Another board member, travel agency owner Robert Rivera, agrees. The BID “doesn’t help much,” says Rivera, who describes it as being run by a tiny cadre of “really wealthy guys.”

Wollinsky says the Dusheys promised to help him with facade improvements for nearly two years, as part of the BID’s plan to fix up about five storefronts a year. Finally, a couple of months ago, he fixed his own sign. But the BID continues to vex him. Over the last few months it has pushed the city to aggressively ticket street vendors, including one who pays Wollinsky $50 a week to set up outside his store. “The BID doesn’t want guys selling jeans in front of the store–they want to sell their jeans in their store,” he contends. “The BID doesn’t work for me. It works for these guys.”

The facade-improvement project has been held up while Schuman waits for a grant to come through from Brooklyn Union Gas; he also anticipates dipping into a mounting budget surplus. Jack Dushey admits the BID isn’t doing all it could. “It really hasn’t been able to kick in yet–we haven’t been able to make the impact we have plans for,” he says. He has a vision for Pitkin Avenue, and it doesn’t involve its current businesses. “The first thing is to get the street looking attractive, and attract national tenants.”

Rappaport, too, thinks the BID’s achievements lie in getting chain stores on the avenue. He points to tenants he personally recruited: Taylor Shoes, Arthur Treacher’s, Foot Locker. He’s also constructed new buildings for Payless and Petland. And he insists he’s not out for himself. “It’s an effort for me to go out to Brooklyn [for BID meetings]. I’ve got nothing to gain,” Rappaport responds. “Some of my other properties are worth more than my entire portfolio of buildings on Pitkin Avenue.”

The BID’s plans put it on a collision course with merchants, who want to keep rents affordable and competition at bay. When Rite Aid opened a year-and-a-half ago, Sim’s, a neighborhood drugstore for 15 years, felt the pain. Sim’s president Samiuella Sharief says business has “become worse,” because “there’s too much competition.” The big stores, he says, “come to make money; they don’t come to solve the [problems of] the community.”

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Marshall Rose, the manager of the Bargain Center, has his office elevated on a glass-walled podium at the back of the store. From this perch, Rose shouts instructions to his workers, teenage girls from the neighborhood folding $2.99 turtlenecks. He also controls the day-to-day operations of the Pitkin Avenue BID.

Rose, a Nassau County resident who has no formal role in the BID, is the one who actually supervises it most closely. He was deputized to that job by the Dusheys, who own his business and the building it’s in. Rose is also the one who hired executive director Alan Schuman. He’s the BID’s spokesperson, responding to Wollisnky’s charge of vendor harassment: “That lies with the NYPD. The BID would never say vendors should be ticketed.”

Rose is well aware of the BID’s benefits. The Bargain Center has been a driving force in Pitkin Avenue’s merchants’ associations since opening in 1960. Says Rose, “You have to zero in on a customer. Each ethnic group has a different shopping style….The BID has the pulse of what’s going on: mixes of population, median income, number of private homes. We’re constantly asking for statistics. We get what we need.”

While it’s Schuman who’s paid $38,500 to be executive director of the BID, no merchant can recall seeing him walk the avenue to talk to storeowners. “I don’t literally go door to door to stores,” admits Schuman. He says it’s difficult for him to connect with proprietors at work, stressing, “I only work two days a week.” Complains Wollinsky, “The BID’s full of dreams. But no one’s willing to see it through. Schuman’s never there.”

Rose acknowledges that the BID isn’t popular with everyone on Pitkin Avenue. “To get to that point, you have to get continuous information to owners,” he suggests. When asked about merchants’ disapproval, Rose is blunt: “If you’re not happy, come to a meeting or come to me at the store. Speak to me.” The BID only recently revived its annual newsletter to merchants. Yet Rose believes the root of the communication breakdown lies elsewhere. “Each culture looks for a different thing,” he suggests. “A lot of them don’t understand what a BID is.”

Merchants say they understand perfectly well–they’re upset because they believe it isn’t doing the things that BIDs should be doing. Pitkin Avenue is one of only two BIDs that has never delivered sanitation services–Schuman says it’s too expensive. That means that in addition to their assessments, merchants pay tickets for dirty sidewalks. Businesses list the other things they haven’t seen yet: advertising, crime prevention, good plain advice. “Business is bad,” says Moo Shon, Justin’s father. “These days there are a lot of megastores, malls. People go there.”

Robin Shulman is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.