Mayfair and Washington Square West flirt with improvement districts

The last two attempts to create Neighborhood Improvement Districts in Philadelphia have crashed and burned, so two groups exploring the possibility of creating new improvement districts are moving slowly.

“We don’t know what the community response is going to be, but at this point we figured, let’s put it out there and see,” said Judith Applebaum, a board member and former president of Washington Square West Civic Association.

A Neighborhood Improvement District (NID) or Business Improvement District (BID) is an area in which property or business owners agree to pay an extra fee, usually based on a percentage of property taxes, for extra services like street cleaning, lighting, or security.

NIDs and BIDs are independent taxing authorities or nonprofit organizations, and while there are around a dozen successful improvement districts in the city today, community response to the two most recent proposals, in Callowhill and North Central, has been potent.

The Callowhill NID, intended to improve the area surrounding the Reading Viaduct, was killed in City Council by an organized group of property owners and business people who worried that they might be taxing themselves out of the neighborhood.

The North Central NID, in the area around Temple University, would only have taxed area landlords—not homeowner-occupants—and yet the proposal was dropped by its sponsor, Council President Darrell Clarke, after community members complained that they were being excluded from the process.

Opposition to new taxes is as old as time; so is the desire for quality-of-life improvements.

In Washington Square West—bounded by Broad, 7th, Chestnut, and South streets—residents have been kicking around the idea of a NID for more than ten years, according to Applebaum. But until about a year ago, the civic association felt it didn’t have the manpower to do the “nitty-gritty investigation” to find out who would be assessed and how much they’d have to pay. Applebaum said the civic association recently hired a consultant to do the math and, while she doesn’t know exactly how much each property owner would have to pay, around 2,800 properties would likely be assessed.

Meg Berlin, the current president of WSWCA, said the association intends to send out a survey to find out what types of services community members would want from a NID. But from informal conversations, she said there’s two main priorities: safer and cleaner streets.

The civic association intends to hold an informational meeting at the beginning of June to get community members involved and test the level of support. If they decide to move forward, they’ll need a bill to be introduced in City Council authorizing the creation of the NID.

Councilman Mark Squilla, who represents the neighborhood, said he’d be happy to introduce the bill if it turns out the community wants it, but that for now, he’s just waiting to see how much support it gets.

“I told them, ‘Listen, it’s not an easy process. Bring it to the community first and see how they feel,’” Squilla said.

The services that NIDs provide are “a little more than city services,” according to Squilla.

“If you want additional security, or you want lighting, or some specific street cleaning, or individual people out there, the city’s never gonna have the resources to do that,” he said.

Even if the community support is strong enough to get a bill introduced into Council, it’s not a done deal. Fifty-one percent of affected property owners can kill a NID by sending letters of opposition within 45 days of a required Council committee hearing. That’s what happened in the case of the Callowhill district.

“The salient points to me are, the public must be involved,” said Meg Berlin. “ … It demands a much higher level of voter participation of any election than I’m aware of.”

“I don’t know if there’s going to be a big backlash,” said Judith Applebaum. “We have talked with people who’ve had the experience of putting [improvement districts] together, but this is going to be very different. This is residents.”

The Washington Square West NID would be different. All of the existing improvement districts in Philadelphia are Business Improvement Districts, like the Center City District, which assess only business owners. A true Neighborhood Improvement District—which assesses every property owner within a given area—has never been created in Philadelphia.

“This is just the beginning of the conversation,” Applebaum said. “No decisions have been made one way or the other.”

Meanwhile, the Mayfair Community Development Corporation is wrapping up the exploratory phase of its effort to create a Business Improvement District. The CDC was awarded a grant from the Commerce Department last summer to test the feasibility of an improvement district, and executive director Mia Hylan said she’s cautiously optimistic that business owners will support the idea.

A BID in Mayfair would focus on “cleaning and greening,” Hylan said, along with parking issues. It would also focus on marketing the area and attracting diverse new businesses to Frankford Avenue.

“Frankford Avenue is a very busy street,” Hylan said. “How do we get people to kind of slow down and take a look at what we actually have here?”

The Mayfair CDC will hold a BID Study Committee meeting on April 30, and Hylan said the exploratory phase of the BID process will be wrapped up by the end of May.

Read the Commerce Department’s guidelines for starting a BID here.

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