The proposed Roosevelt Avenue Business Improvement District (BID) represents a form of privatized administration that will negatively transform the immigrant neighborhoods of Corona, Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights.
The Roosevelt Avenue BID is marketed as a public/private partnership that will foster orderly economic growth in a well-known immigrant retail strip in northwestern Queens. The BID will essentially function as a private organization administered by landlords and financed by compulsory assessments on commercial real estate and local businesses. The economic assessments, which operate as an additional tax, will supplement and/or replace government functions by privatizing the delivery of public goods such as sanitation, security and assorted services. In this business scenario, the landlord dominated BID management will replace the give-and-take of local civic and political engagement. But more importantly, this denies our newest New Yorkers with the opportunity to learn the lessons of civic and political life through direct participation at the neighborhood level.
The urban BID model mimics the suburban mall. Both share similar characteristics. They are private, highly regulated places that centralize decision-making, minimize public accountability, and threaten the economic survival of local retail firms. This top-down approach also undermines the meaningful participation of small family-based immigrant firms in the BID’s management structure. And because BID voting rights are allocated on the basis of economic size, the short- and long-term interests of small immigrant business owners/renters will be poorly represented.
The BID’s top-down managerial model favors asset-rich landlords over small family-based commercial renters, replacing the more inclusionary practice of one-person-one-vote. Clearly, this top-down approach does not bode well for the inclusion of small immigrant firms – as engaged stakeholders – into the economic and civic life of the neighborhood. In this market model the voice of the few, outweigh the muffled voice of the many.
The establishment of the privatized BID management model – in northwestern Queens – reflects the growing centralization of economic power in New York City. The Roosevelt Avenue BID is part and parcel of a larger economic tsunami that is washing away small family-owned businesses, while creating the conditions supporting the growth of large scale national chains in densely packed immigrant neighborhoods. These changes in the Queens economic landscape have been facilitated by the rezoning of north Corona, the mega real estate project in Willets Point, and the large-scale sports complex in the Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
These large-scale and capital intensive real estate projects reflect an economic growth model that, at the end of the day, supports the development of a destination-driven tourist economy. Small retail operations and immigrant housing – that meet the neighborhood-base needs of working-class residents – will be displaced by rising real estate values that favor deep-pocketed outside investors and tourist-based consumption over small local entrepreneurs and neighborhood-based consumption. In this profit-driven context, economic growth without equitable and sustainable development creates a high-end market where it will be easier to purchase a cup of latte than a box of disposable baby diapers.
The Roosevelt Avenue BID is a deeply flawed initiative that must be carefully evaluated and thoughtfully critiqued by local residents, immigrant entrepreneurs, neighborhood activists, and elected officials. And in a society marked by mass immigration, criticism and dialogue are essential elements in the process of democratic problem solving and immigrant incorporation. In the words of the philosopher John Dewey: “A problem well put, is half solved.”
Arturo Ignacio Sánchez, Ph.D. is chairperson of the Newest New Yorkers Committee of Community Board 3, Queens. He has taught contemporary immigration and entrepreneurship at Barnard College, Columbia University, and Cornell University.