Italian Market BID dead after opponents raise voices

Philadelphia's iconic Italian Market. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia's iconic Italian Market. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A proposed business improvement district (BID) that divided Italian Market property owners, tenants, and residents won’t advance in 2019.

“The organizers wanted to do a little more work, and requested that we suspend the legislation so it could not be voted out this session,” said City Councilmember Mark Squilla, who put a hold on the South Philadelphia BID’s enabling bill last week. “It ends the process because any legislation not heard this year dies. If they still want to start a BID, they have to start from scratch.”

Business improvement districts offer services such as neighborhood street cleaning or beatification in designated areas where enough property owners see a need for services beyond those provided by the city. In exchange for the additional services, property owners within the BID’s boundaries pay a fee based on a small percentage of assessed property value.

In the case of the proposed South Philly Market District, the BID would charge .2% of a property’s assessed value and the surcharge would only apply to owners of commercial structures or for-profit landlords.

Philadelphia’s best-known BID is Center City District, but smaller districts have played vital roles in revitalizing East Passyunk, South Street, and in Old City, proponents say.

The legislation needed to create the Italian Market BID, introduced by Squilla, had moved through City Council’s committee process earlier in October, beginning a 45-day period where affected property owners could vote on whether they wanted to be represented by the proposed organization.  The decision to put the process on hold came after a noisy City Council hearing dominated by BID opponents.

“As a small businessman, the city is already in my pocket for at least eight different licenses and fees,” testified Barry Wilepsky, a small business owner who would be covered by the proposed BID.

The Fishtown-Kensington BID proposal, considered at the same hearing, continues to move ahead, although opponents made their voices heard on that effort as well.

But supporters of the South Philly effort said they were taken aback by the negative feedback.

“We are responding to the volume of opposition on certain blocks specifically,” said Eugene Desyatnik, a supporter of the proposal and head of the Bella Vista Neighbors Association. “In consultation with Councilman Squilla, we decided that this [a hold] was an opportunity to make further adjustments.”

Desyatnik said BID advocates plan to formulate a new proposal cutting out some of the blocks where the most potent opposition lies.

Attempts to form business improvement districts often meet resistance from some property owners, who may oppose additional fees on top of the taxes they already pay. A 2014 change in state law lowered the threshold of opposition, so BID foes only need to get one-third of affected property owners to vote against the proposal.

Squilla’s hold on the South Philly BID represents the second deadlock in a six-year campaign to bring such an organization to the Italian Market.

In 2013, the Commerce Department gave a $40,000 grant to a group of merchants on 9th Street, to explore the idea of a BID.

The proposal provoked a fierce backlash from a variety of interests, including some older shopkeepers as well as immigrant business owners south of Washington Avenue. With over 33 percent of property owners opposed, the BID got voted down.

In 2018, Desyatnik and his allies announced their intention to try again, this time with a narrower scope. At the beginning of this Council session, the number of properties to be covered by the proposed BID shrank again, reducing the district by about 60 properties.

“We may cut out a portion of 8th street, probably close to Christian,” said Desyatnik.  “But it’s one of those determinations we have to make as a committee — its not final.”

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