At their best, business improvement districts in Los Angeles have been instrumental in revitalizing blighted and neglected communities. Property owners in a certain area vote to band together as a group and assess themselves a fee to service their area as they see fit. (The more property an owner has, the weightier his or her vote and the higher the assessment.) Most of the funds go to cleanup and security — picking up trash and erasing graffiti, for instance, are common enterprises of the districts. Some go further, engaging in promotion or economic development.
Los Angeles has 39 BIDs, as they are known. Or it did until recently, when the Arts District BID was disbanded by order of a Superior Court judge. The court case took a long and circuitous route, but in the end the judge ruled that funds spent on economic development activities provided no special benefit to the people being assessed. The ruling raises potential issues for other BIDs. Here, it ended with the shuttering of this BID on the eastern edge of downtown.
The managers of the Arts District BID tick off a list of their accomplishments in the last six years: tons of trash hauled away, illegal trash dumping stopped, graffiti cleaned up, badly rutted streets paved, and even prostitution eliminated at a truck way station in the district. Detractors of the management acknowledge some of those improvements but say the BID had little to do with them, and they complain that its funds were misspent.
The dismantling of this BID does not mean that the Arts District can’t try again to organize. Whether that means forming a new BID — which City Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents this area, supports — or another kind of community group, the residents of the Arts District have an opportunity to form an organization to help with the services that many may have taken for granted. BIDs, in fact, can have a plan as narrow or broad as the residents want, so there may be a chance now to refashion this group in a way that can unite the participants.
As residents and businesses in the Arts District contemplate that question, they should recognize that help is not on the way from City Hall, where shortfalls and cutbacks are the order of the day. Moreover, those realities should be recognized elsewhere too, and they should spur creative thinking about what neighborhoods can do for themselves. Residents across Los Angeles have come to the realization that they need to take some matters into their own hands in order to protect and energize their communities. One neighborhood’s divisive experience should not discourage others.