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Some Small Fry Are Struggling to Do City's BID-ding

October 14, 1998|VICKI TORRES

Who could be against steam-cleaned sidewalks, security patrols, festive street banners, frequent trash collection and trimmed trees?

These niceties that can make or break neighborhood businesses are coming in many parts of Los Angeles courtesy of newly formed BIDs, or Business Improvement Districts, that are cropping up all over the city. Already, 17 exist and 27 more are in the works, making Los Angeles one of the top BID-producing cities statewide.

Basically, BIDs work by bringing the clout of the city into a neighborhood to legally collect fees from individual merchants or property owners for improvements. Business owners who don't want to go along with the plan are typically viewed as grumpy tightwads, apathetic stay-at-homes, or self-centered operators who have no sense of civic responsibility.

Face it, these party poopers are told: The city, like most, is struggling with limited revenue and can provide only basic services. If you want to spruce up your streets with extras, you need to roll up your sleeves and dig into your own pockets to get more. And BIDs are one way to do it.

Yet, behind all the glowing reports and enthusiasm, it might be wise to take a breath and look more closely at BIDs.

The push for them "may be going too far, too fast," said Estela Lopez, a Los Angeles public affairs consultant. "There may be areas where folks have other ways of doing the same things and it shouldn't be thought of as the 'next cure.'

"Just because it's the popular one right now doesn't make it the right one," Lopez said.

Lopez is a BID veteran, having served as executive director of the city's first BID, the now-defunct Miracle on Broadway downtown. Although she counts herself a BID fan, Lopez says that in order for BIDS to survive and succeed, they must be understood by and have the support of the majority of businesses in their boundaries. Improving the neighborhood is not enough.

Miracle on Broadway is an example.

In its one year of operation--1995--calls to police decreased by 30%, sidewalk gamblers moved elsewhere, trash no longer piled up curbside and sidewalks were swept and cleaned, Lopez said. But an entrenched vocal group of merchants opposed to the BID successfully lobbied up and down the street, secured more opponents and killed the idea. Now, Broadway has returned to its pre-BID appearance.

"In one year, it made such an impact," Lopez said. "It's heartbreaking to see [Broadway] regress back to where it is today."

At least one of the city's current BIDs could face a similar scenario if BID proponents are not watchful. The Los Feliz Village BID has engendered hostility from a small group of very vocal opponents.

Dan Wininger, owner of Koma Books, is one of them. Wininger operates a small bookstore specializing in what he calls "esoteric books"--true crime, sexual deviancies and medical depravities. Planters and twinkling lights in the trees--what he says are some proposed BID projects--will not matter one whit to his specialized, niche clientele. Instead, he prefers Los Feliz the way it is.

"They're ruining the vibration of the little, Bohemian neighborhood we have here," he complained. "They want to turn it into like every other strip mall."

Although he initially said the $200 assessment was too high for his struggling business, Wininger admitted he could pay it, but hasn't yet because of the principle involved.

His anger and that of others is not to be taken lightly. And indeed, it may spring from a fundamental principle that is buried or ignored in the rush to create the city's BIDs.

That is, that BIDs sometimes usurp the rightful place of volunteer civic improvement organizations and replace it with a fee system required by law. In other words, you must go along with the planter and twinkling lights whether you want to or not.

Previously, neighborhoods created their own chambers of commerce or business associations to undertake improvements and projects. Business owners joined if they wanted to and, as is the case with most such organizations, a handful of dedicated people ended up doing most of the work. They also ended up getting most of the credit at chamber and association dinners. Such is the way of small business.

That was the case in Los Feliz before BID creation, said George Abrahamian, its current president and owner of La Belle Epoque restaurant.

"We were doing all the work, digging into our pockets, having fund-raisers, contributing food and labor," said Abrahamian, who estimated that only 60 out of 240 merchants were involved.

But when the city helped out by providing a consultant to create a BID, they found it easier to reach more businesses, create the BID and collect fees from everyone.

That is at the heart of the BID process: the collection of fees by the city. The way it's done is twofold.

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