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Improving downtown Boston through BID

If taking part in the new Downtown Boston Business Improvement District (BID) didn’t make BSA members’ New Year’s resolution lists, it’s not too late. Why did this BID campaign succeed when past ones have failed, what is it expected to accomplish and how does one get involved?

Downtown Boston’s BID is finally established (after 15 challenging years) because of a grassroots effort that was run in compliance with a statute that past campaigns had tried to change or work around. Rather than shoot for a compulsory BID that may have generated $22 million in improvements during its first five years—but that would have been contrary to the state BID law, which allows every property owner a one-time, 30-day chance to opt out of paying BID fees—leaders created a $16 million operation by satisfying the statutory criteria. Compliantly, owners representing more than 60% of the BID area’s total number of parcels signed the pro-BID petition, and the collective assessed value of these properties amounted to more than 51% of the area’s entire assessed valuation.

All past Boston BID attempts had died at the State House for various political reasons. This time, leaders avoided Beacon Hill while enlisting property owners on city streets and government officials at Boston City Hall. Boston’s mayor, Thomas Menino, who had championed the BID cause since 1996, was effectively engaged. The Boston Redevelopment Authority and real-estate community’s efforts in turning undecided property owners into BID supporters increased as the campaign approached the key statutory bars.

Pro-BID activists probably would have failed yet again if they hadn’t decided to work with the BID statute instead of fighting it. Likewise, there probably would be no BID if Mayor Menino hadn’t spoken directly with at least one key office-tower owner; if State Street Corporation had not stepped up to the plate after Equity Office Properties did not; if supportive property owners, and agents and brokers such as CB Richard Ellis and Lincoln Property Company had not sold the merits of BIDs to their clients and peers; or if the Boston Herald and the Boston Globe hadn’t written supportively about the BID in its editorial pages.

Primarily, three business and civic leaders were responsible for the BID drive’s important decisions, coalition building and ultimate success: 1) Real-estate lawyer John Rattigan of DLA Piper devoted months’ worth of work time as the BID Steering Committee co-chair and slotted one of his firm’s associates-in-waiting with excellent people skills—Brian Awe—into a key support role; 2) A.W. Perry President Jack Spurr, Jr., Rattigan’s co-chair whose firm owns several parcels in the BID, logged in more hours and successfully recruited more property owners than any of his peers; and 3) former Boston City Councilor Rosemarie Sansone switched from being a Downtown Crossing Partnership board member to the organization’s president, in part so she could assemble the BID campaign team and run the drive.

The BID corporation will make the designated BID area cleaner and safer in the years ahead. More than $6 million will be devoted to cleaning and maintenance from 2011–2016, according to the unofficial plan. Another $1 million or so will go toward “beautification and capital improvements.” Roughly $3 million will be spent on a safety and hospitality program that will include the same kind of uniformed ambassadors who add value to many big-city BIDs. Currently, the BID is working to secure the services of Block by Block, a company that runs clean and safe operations for BIDs in 32 cities nationwide.

Perhaps the best opportunities for Boston’s architectural and related communities to assist the BID will come from future volunteerism and board service, and from collaborative public-relations efforts. One realizes while examining the BID’s board of directors, neighborhood advisory board and transition team that there is hardly anyone from the architecture and planning professions involved besides David Lee FAIA of Stull and Lee. More representation from our colleagues might benefit the BID while keeping most of the control in the hands of the funding commercial property owners. The BSA and similar groups are excellent sources for ideas in this field. The BID would love to be the center of a thousand moving pieces, all focused on improving Downtown Boston; BIDs work that way in other major cities. However, with the BID still in its formative stages, BID leaders’ primary focus is to make certain the millions it will soon have for the clean, safety and marketing programs are delivered, readily available and appropriately spent.

Architectural organizations have successfully partnered with other big-city BIDs on projects such as nighttime illumination of historic and architecturally significant buildings in the district. Similar success could happen in downtown Boston.

Suffolk University donated more than 1,000 hours of Frank Barrett’s time to the successful Downtown Boston BID campaign. The former political consultant, White House staffer (Clinton administration) and Suffolk Law graduate has worked near the crossroads of politics, government and development for more than 20 years.