The Roosevelt Avenue BID: Winners and Losers

The proposed extension of the 82nd Street Business Improvement District (BID), otherwise known as the Jackson Heights – Corona Business Improvement District, will fundamentally transform the Roosevelt Avenue commercial corridor and the immigrant neighborhoods of Corona, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights of northwestern Queens.

Local elected officials and real estate interests claim that the BID will upgrade and improve the Roosevelt Avenue corridor, generate economic growth and development, while improving the quality-of-life and economic circumstances of local residents. Such bold economic development claims, in a borough with growing levels of inequality, should be transparently discussed and critically evaluated. And in assessing the BID proposal it makes good public policy sense to ask a simple, yet obvious question: Will the BID provide the greatest good for the greatest number?
Queens is a borough of immigrants. According to the NYC Department of City Planning, 48.5 percent of Queens County residents are foreign-born. The demographic data for the Corona, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights neighborhoods is even more dramatic. Corona’s foreign-born population is 64.2%, Elmhurst’s is 71.0%, and Jackson Heights’ is 62.0. In short, the three neighborhoods have a total of 208,954 residents that were born abroad and will be directly affected by the establishment of the BID.

According to Seth Taylor, the executive director of the 82nd Street BID, landlords and the owners of small business firms have similar economic interests. This is simply not the case. BIDs are economic entities specifically organized as a landlord dominated association. BIDs are designed to represent real estate interests by increasing land values and commercial rents. Property owners capture the added value associated with real estate driven growth while small firms will pay higher rents. Conclusion: Higher rents benefit landlords while hurting small business owners and local residents.

Recent changes in Corona’s zoning regulations – as well as the proposed rezoning of the southern portion of Roosevelt Avenue – favor real estate interests. Changes in zoning allow for higher levels of commercial density and will increase land values and commercial rents. This change in land use creates market conditions that open the door to the influx of cash-rich national chain stores and franchises that can outbid small cash-poor immigrant firms for upgraded commercial lots. Capital intensive economic growth and rising real estate costs will displace small family-based businesses, increase housing rents, and displace working class residents and seniors on fixed incomes. Conclusion: Rezoning and higher land values benefit landlords and large-scale firms while hurting small business owners and local residents.

The increase in capital intensive firms and decrease in small firms will diminish the total amount of capital circulating within the local economy. National chains will transfer profits to their corporate headquarters and shareholders. These standard corporate practices drain the community of scarce capital and limit local investments and economic activity. The outflow of locally generated capital restricts the demand and supply for basic goods and services, lowers the profitability of small firms, and place family operated enterprises at risk for bankruptcy. Conclusion: Capital outflows benefits corporate shareholders while hurting small business owners and local residents.

Clearly the economic costs and benefits associated with real estate driven growth are not evenly shared. There are specific winners and losers. This form of economic growth, in the aggregate, will standardize commercial activity and transform the demographic profile of Roosevelt Avenue and the adjacent neighborhoods. This will decrease ethnic and class diversity while increasing gentrification, economic inequality, and social dislocations.

Professors Arturo Ignacio Sánchez and Tarry Hum talking at a meeting of RACA one recent afternoon.
New York BIDs and other forms of trickle-down economics have been closely analyzed. Sharon Zukin’s text: Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Spaces, provides a critical analysis of real estate-driven growth and gentrification. While Tarry Hum’s, soon to be published book: Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood: Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, documents the tensions generated by economic growth and restructuring in an iconic immigrant neighborhood. Tom Angotti’s New York for Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate recounts how communities and progressive planners resisted corporate incursions into neighborhoods. And Jason Hackworth, in his well-known study: The Neoliberal City: Governance, Ideology, and Development in American Urbanism, addresses the structural inequalities associated with market-based real estate growth in Queens County.

The case against the continued expansion of BIDs in New York City has been made. It is there for all to see in the displacement of working class African Americans that resulted from the establishment of the Harlem BID, community-based resistance against the establishment of the Chinatown BID, and growing concerns that the establishment of an East Harlem BID will accelerate residential displacement, increase gentrification, and obliterate this historical Latino barrio.

It is now western Queens’ turn to resist the corporate incursions that threaten the borough’s diverse immigrant neighborhoods. Corona, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, during the past forty-years, emerged as economically vibrant immigrant communities that add value to the larger economy. The explosion of small family-based immigrant businesses ushered the growth of an emerging entrepreneurial middle-class, generated a wide range of service-based jobs, and created the informal organizational structures that fosters a deep sense of community and place. These hard won economic and social breakthroughs must be preserved.

The BID real estate driven growth strategy was aggressively supported by the Bloomberg administration. This regressive public policy deepened and accelerated the social inequalities associated with the Tale of Two Cities. And in light of mayor de Blasio’s progressive agenda, which calls for the crafting of a more socially just city, his administration should revisit and reevaluate the generic BID strategy. Public policy should support: local economic development; neighborhood stability; and ethnic, racial, and class diversity. This will ensure that neighborhoods and communities are not sacrificed on the altar of corporate economic growth and will foster the greatest good for the greatest number.

Arturo Ignacio Sánchez, Ph.D. is chairperson of the Newest New Yorkers Committee of Community Board 3, Queens. He has taught contemporary immigration, entrepreneurship, and urban planning at Barnard College, City University of New York, Columbia University, Cornell University, and Pratt Institute.