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City Council postpones vote on downtown improvement district

 Downtown Rochester skyline view.
Max Schulte
Downtown Rochester skyline view.

City Council is hitting pause on legislation and an expected vote this month that would start laying the groundwork for a possible Business Improvement District downtown.

With a BID, property owners in a designated area agree to tax themselves to support services and investments they think are needed. Those can include things like event programming, additional street and sidewalk cleaning, or safety patrols. A BID in Washington, D.C., funds homeless outreach.

Council President Miguel Meléndez said he favors moving forward, but his colleagues and the public have questions that require answers and clarification.

“The public needs to understand that this is really an exploration," he said. "That legislation is authorizing us to study this, and whether or not we want to pursue it."

This study and preparation period, to include extensive public input, is expected to take two years to complete. Some planning has begun but legislative action is required. No decisions have been made on boundaries, budget, or what the BID might do.

The push for a BID stems from the state’s investment in downtown riverfront projects. That came with a recommendation to create a riverfront management entity and money to help start it.

BIDs have been around since the 1970s. More than 1,200 are in existence nationally; 70 in New York City alone. There ae BIDS in Canandaigua, Geneva, Buffalo, Syracuse and already in Rochester, with High Falls. A downtown district was considered, and failed, a decade ago.

Early opposition this time around, led by members of the local arts community, has raised questions about accountability, representation and transparency of such a quasi-governmental institution.

That was one of several questions Council Vice President Mary Lupien posed to the administration. The answer came back: "A potential future BID for downtown would be utilizing funds collected by the local government, and as such the local law establishing the District can require the BID’S board to conduct open meetings and establish other procedures to promote transparency." City Council also could dissolve the BID at the request of property owners, or of its own behest.

The decision to hold the legislation was made jointly with the administration.

"This gives people the opportunity to talk," Mayor Malik Evans said, adding: "I'm willing to broker any conversations that need to happen."

Lupien said she is all for a public dialogue and process but disagrees with the characterization of the work ahead as an exploratory study. It's to develop a plan, she said, adding: "Once we start this process, there will be an inertia, backed by many of the power players in town, and it will be hard to put it back in the box after spending money, time and effort on the design."

From Meléndez: "I think we need to continue education on the subject and understand what exactly this will do and what it's what it will not do. I think there's some narratives out there about this, and I'm not sure it's true. And that's where I think another month of conversation would be helpful."

Meléndez expects to develop a plan forward in the coming days that could involve further public discussion before bringing the matter back before City Council for a vote in August. Council member Michael Patterson, in whose committee the legislation sits, was less definite on a timetable.

"It's going to take a lot of effort to learn all we need to know in a month," Lupien said, "but my guess is that's all we're going to get."

Brian Sharp is WXXI's investigations and enterprise editor. He also reports on business and development in the area. He has been covering Rochester since 2005. His journalism career spans nearly three decades.