By columnist Arturo I. Sanchez. The 82nd Street Business Improvement District’s (BID) proposal to expand its economic reach and formal authority along Roosevelt Avenue corridor and the surrounding commercial strips has triggered an important controversy. Two opposing positions have coalesced around the meaning of neighborhood socio-economic development and local participation.
The 82nd Street BID, in keeping with former mayor Bloomberg’s administration approach to local economic growth, has long argued the conventional wisdom that Roosevelt Avenue’s commercial activity would be significantly improved by establishing a market-based real estate driven form of economic growth. This approach would provide a safe, secure, and efficient marketplace that fosters growth in the retail sector, efficient management and local participation. It is further argued that the BID expansion will not accelerate gentrification by displacing local businesses and affordable housing in the immigrant neighborhoods of Corona and Jackson Heights.
Ms. Leslie Ramos, the newly installed executive director of the 82nd Street BID, has stated – in a recent local publication – that: “We are taking a proven program and modifying it to address the needs, culture and customs of the community to ensure that all our residents and small business benefit from equitable economic growth.” This is a strong affirmative assertion that warrants a more detailed and transparent discussion. Unfortunately, a response was not forthcoming because she did not respond to request for a formal interview by QueensLatino.
Queens Neighborhoods United (QNU), a bottom-up coalition of diverse civic advocacy groups, formal/informal business owners, and local residents, has taken the leadership in opposing the BID’s geographical expansion into working- and middle-class neighborhoods. In general terms QNU critiques and rejects a private sector/real estate driven approach that will define the “common good” and undercut the local participation of small business owners and informal entrepreneurs. QNU activists, in addition, posit that the expansion of the BID will result in higher commercial rents, increase the influx of national chain stores, and expel small immigrant businesses and affordable housing. These outcomes, according to the QNU narrative, will reinforce the existing economic, social, and ethnic inequities that define what mayor DeBlasio has call “a tale of two cities.”
These two opposing positions have generated a great deal of local political heat. And in attempting to contain the unravelling of the BID initiative the local councilwoman, Julissa Ferreras, recently rolled out a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The MOU is basically an agreement that reworks the BID’s governance structure in a politically expeditious and flawed undemocratic manner.
According to the councilwoman the MOU is “… the solution our immigrant small businesses wanted.” This is a questionable assertion. First and foremost, the MOU was crafted in an exclusionary manner because QNU was not included in the negotiations. This is puzzling because QNU organized the opposition around the BID issue. To quarantine and sanitize the MOU negotiations by excluding QNU may be managerially efficient – in that it minimized difficult and contentious issues and questions – but it is a gross violation of the claim that the BID will fully support local participation and civic engagement. Which raises a politically uncomfortable question: Is this what a so-called “solution” means?
The structure and mechanics of the BID’s restructured governance is fundamentally flawed and undemocratic. The MOU calls for an expansion of the BID’s board of directors to 25 members. As a newly constituted board, the BID will include 13 property owners, 4 elected officials, and 8 commercial and residential residents. And in a strategic political tip of the hat to “progressives” the board will include street vendors, members of LGBT community, and youth.
Yet, this supposed “progressive” inclusion begs the question with regards to democratic engagement and meaningful local participation. Voting on important issues – such as changes in maximum assessments, approval of the annual budget, amendments to the by-laws, and approval of the District Vision Plan – require a 2/3 + 1 supermajority approval vote. In effect, dissident positions that differ from dominant real estate interests are effectively managed and dismissed by these restrictive voting requirement. Moreover, the supermajority requirement is an approach that is championed by right-wing political elements at the national level. In short, is this what is meant by progressive inclusion or is this mere window dressing that provides dominant economic interests with a “progressive” political cover?
The MOU represents a generalized and cynical turn towards bottom-up local participation. A participatory approach, in this particular context, is being aggressively packaged and marketed as a progressive response to the undemocratic character of a mainstream top-down managerial approach to community development. Yet, according to the well-known community development analysts, Bill Cooke and Uma Kothari, participatory development is “… justified in terms of sustainability, relevance and empowerment.” Nonetheless, their research also indicates that “… participation can result in political co-option…” in that it “… masks continued centralization in the name of decentralization.”
Clearly the economic and socio-political stakes are high. Working class immigrant neighborhoods are under assault, seniors on fixed incomes are at risk for losing their affordable rental housing, small family-based face a grim and troubled economic future, and the progressive goal of democratic civic participation is being threatened and undermined. Which leads me to ask our elected officials and local non-profits to meaningfully engage the local community in crafting their communal future in an open, transparent, and democratic manner. In other words — put back the capital letter P back into the term Progressive.
Arturo Ignacio Sánchez, Ph.D. is chairperson of the New Yorkers Committee of Queens Community Board 3. He has also taught courses on immigration and entrepreneurship at Barnard College, The City University of New York, Columbia University, Cornell University, and New York University.