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In search of street vitality, Rochester considers business improvement districts

East Avenue and Stillson Street midday
James Brown
East Avenue and Stillson Street midday

City leaders are mulling a new option to inject life into downtown Rochester streets.

They’re called business improvement districts, or BIDs. They’re umbrella organizations that provide things that governments don’t in specific areas – things like marketing efforts for businesses, or public toilets, for example.

As of February, there were 76 districts in New York City, stretching across all five boroughs. There are 70 such districts in California. Longtime Rochester Downtown Development Corp. leader Heidi Zimmer-Meyer said there are at least 2,000 around the world going by different names.

“There's a lot of democracy built into this model, not only in New York state, but everywhere,” she said. “And that's one of the reasons why this model is such a popular kind of thing to help manage downtowns in particular.”

Zimmer-Meyer presented the idea during a City Council work session last week, saying the districts come in all shapes and sizes and focus on improving the vitality of specific areas. These entities could be used to fund pretty much anything, she said, such as events, beautification, or public art.

“There are a number of people that feel we got to do something different because what we have now is not enough to create the street vitality that we need to reflect the investments that are being made,” said Zimmer-Meyer.

Thousands of new apartments are either completed or under construction downtown. The Strong Museum of Play is undergoing a massive expansion and building a “Neighborhood of Play” around it. Other projects include the dozens of small businesses in incubators in Sibley Square, the Parcel 5 green space in the former Midtown Plaza’s footprint, and Constellation Brands’ plan to bring hundreds of workers to six buildings on Broad Street.

Zimmer-Meyer would like to focus on improving street life, saying that engaging those residents and employees will be key to the area’s recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If we want to have a fighting chance of attracting remote workers back to office spaces in the coming years, there are a number of people that feel we got to do something different,” Zimmer-Meyer said.

She said these districts likely would be entirely funded by $5 million in Empire State Development dollars initially, but would need long-term support. Typically, property owners or business owners would be asked to contribute to the district, but the structure of the proposed entity would be completely up to City Council.

Zimmer Meyer is urging stakeholders to get involved in the process because once these districts are declared, business or property owners would have to adhere to the payment structure.

After the presentation, Mayor-elect Malik Evans and several members of City Council were receptive to the idea and asked for more updates. Evans said that similar concepts have been considered in Rochester for “years and years,” but they stumbled out of the block due to funding constraints.

“We finally have the opportunity to actually move this forward. It's very exciting,” Evans said. “It's going to take a lot of work, but I'm just happy to see that we're getting off the ball to actually have the opportunity to really have what other every other downtown in every other part of the country has.”

Retiring City Council President Loretta Scott said she intends to stress to her remaining colleagues how important this concept is.

“It will encompass a lot of territory and will have extremely long-term impacts,” said Scott. “This is a really powerful and exciting opportunity; I’m looking forward to watching you all make it happen.”

Updates are expected in the new year.

James Brown is a reporter with WXXI News. James previously spent a decade in marketing communications, while freelance writing for CITY Newspaper. While at CITY, his reporting focused primarily on arts and entertainment.