Philadelphia City Council votes this week on creating a business improvement district along North Broad Street. The legislation would cap a multi-year journey — though not everyone on the strip is in favor.
The central corridor north of City Hall is home to many landmarks, storied organizations, and resurgent businesses. They make up a resilient community dealing with decades of disinvestment followed by a recent surge of gentrification.
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In recent years, efforts to coordinate more robust city services, encourage tourist foot traffic, and support small businesses on the street have been led by the North Broad Renaissance, an economic development nonprofit founded eight years ago.
The NBR was initially formed as a special services district, but changed course after a few years of operations. “After speaking with stakeholders, we decided to move into the business improvement district model,” Renaissance executive director Shalimar Thomas told Billy Penn. Business and property owners encouraged the move to formally sustain and expand their work.
The organization had gotten through most of the legislative process to create one, before COVID forced a change of plans.
“We were at the point where we had our hearing, scheduled for March 18, 2020,” Thomas said. “So that ended everything.”
Nearly three years later, the North Broad BID is finally close to reality.
Robert Del Femine, cofounder of Underground Concepts, which operates several venues in the Divine Lorraine, believes more coordination on North Broad is the missing link to the corridor joining other rapidly developing parts of Philadelphia north of City Hall.
“I’ve always considered North Broad to be the keystone now within the city, when you think of what’s happened,” Del Femine said. “Center City is obvious, but when you think of Spring Garden, Fairmount, Brewerytown, Northern Liberties, Fishtown? What’s that last piece that is the conduit? It’s Broad Street.”
Business improvement districts exist all over Philly. They can stimulate commercial activity, as demonstrated in Center City, East Passyunk, and Northern Liberties, among other areas. Efforts to create them aren’t always successful; an attempt to create an Italian Market BID last decade was soundly defeated.
In a BID, property owners pay a mandatory fee based on the percentage of the district’s total value their property represents. It’s meant to fund services like street maintenance, greenery planting, security cameras, more cohesive police coverage, and economic development initiatives, including cross-corridor collaboration.
When the proposal for a North Broad BID passed out of Council’s Rules Committee last week, that marked the beginning of a 45-day objection period. If 51% of property owners along the strip show their disapproval by mid-November, the effort is dead in the water, regardless of how Council votes.
After years of outreach, Thomas is cautiously optimistic that won’t happen, but acknowledges that the decision lies with property and business owners in the area.
Biz owners hope for strength in numbers
At the public hearing, North Broad business owners were generally supportive of the measure and excited for the changes it could bring.
Harry Hayman, a mainstay in Philly’s restaurant scene who’s worked for decades with the jazz and soul food specialists Robert and Ben Bynum, referenced his past experience.
“We’ve been a part of many neighborhood districts over the years,” he told Billy Penn. “With Zanzibar Blue, we were part of the Center City District when Center City SIPS started, way back when.”
For Hayman, the greatest benefit is strength in numbers.
“Anytime an individual says, ‘Hey, look at me,’ they’ve got one voice. But anytime a group of folks say, ‘Hey, look at us,’ they have a better chance of being successful.”
Del Femine, of Underground Concepts, spoke candidly about fears of gentrification and lackluster community input. For him, the only way to assuage those concerns is to actually listen and start off by getting some “big wins.”
“We have to do the things that are prioritized the highest for those neighborhoods, even though they may feel like their [issues] are never going to be as high up in the pecking order versus some of the bigger businesses or the people with money,” he said.
Small businesses have had input on the process through the North Broad Business Roundtable, Del Femine said. He noted the importance of “cathartic expression” at the meetings, and the ability to move from the individual tactical moves to broader strategic goals for the district.
“Everybody has kind of been affected by the last two and a half years, and I mean beyond just the pandemic,” Del Femine said. “There’s been a lot of reckoning for women, for people of color, people of different orientations.”
Has this been tried before?
Back in 2012, Council President Darrel Clarke, whose district includes much of North Broad Street, pushed for a neighborhood improvement district there. That’s slightly different from a BID, but made possible under the same state law.
The process caused a lot of pushback, and the district didn’t happen.
A spokesperson for Clarke at the time told WHYY the NID was being sought to combat the effects of a student-housing boom in the area, and that Clarke and Temple-area landlords took inspiration from West Philly’s University City District.
Residents protested they didn’t have enough input in the process, or any way to make their objections actionable. In the end, there wasn’t enough support from area landlords for Clarke’s NID to be passed.
This time around, Judith Robinson, chairperson for the 32nd Democratic Ward and real estate broker, was the only person at the recent public hearing to raise concerns about a lack of engagement.
Robinson told Billy Penn that with broader coordination, the BID’s programming could benefit communities that border North Broad, by extending outwards on “feeder streets.”
She said there wasn’t any attempt to reach out to civic organizations in the surrounding areas. “They seem to think that since it’s [on] Broad Street, they don’t really have to engage with us,” Robinson said. “I reach out to them, because I know how important it is.”
Thomas, of the North Broad Renaissance, said that while the focus is on business and property owners, her door remains open. “If the civic associations want to talk and see how this is going to affect them, I’m open to that,” she said. The NBR has also kept engaged through mailing announcements to affected residents, not just affected properties — additionally, all impacted residents are sent a notice from City Council when new districts are in the offing.
Although there are about 265 properties impacted by the BID, each of NBR’s mailings were sent to nearly 2000 addresses.
Who gets to be in charge?
The Community and Economic Improvement Act, the law that allows for the creation of BIDs, calls for creation of a Neighborhood Improvement District Management Association to collect the property assessments and manage the programs.
Unsurprisingly, North Broad Renaissance would become the NIDMA for a North Broad BID, which director Thomas described as “scaling up” with a deeper emphasis on economic growth.
“Now we have to think about how these organizations will be structured in a way where we’re thinking about it from a growth level,” Thomas said.
The BID would also be governed by the Renaissance’s bylaws, which call for a board consisting of property owners, business owners, and “institutions” in the district boundaries.
Currently, the organization’s board of directors comprises representatives from larger businesses, developers, and power players at governmental organizations, plus some smaller business owners, neighborhood boosters, and community organizers, including:
- Dr. Kenneth Scott (Chairman) — President of Beech Interplex, a longtime economic development and financial assistance firm in the area
- Steven Scott Bradley (Secretary) — CEO of Bradley & Bradley Associates, and insurance and risk management firm
- Randolph K. Brock (Treasurer) — Vice president and investment officer at Wells Fargo
- Lowell Thomas (General Council) — Philadelphia Housing Authority
- Eric Blumenfeld — Principal of EB Realty Management Corporation, developer of the Met Philly and Divine Lorraine
- Mark Harris — Managing partner of the Philly office of Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, a national law firm
- Anthony Johnson — Director of operation at Progress Investment Associates, an economic development firm
- Stephen P. Mullin — President of Econsult Solutions, a business and public policy consulting firm
- Brian Murray — CEO and Founder of Shift Capital, an impact-driven real estate investment firm
- Megan R. Smith — Founder of Brownstone PR, a boutique public relations firm
The district applies to both sides of North Broad, stretching from the north side of Spring Garden Street to the south side of Indiana Avenue. By address, it would begin at 510 N. Broad St. and terminate at 2929 North Broad St.
BID staff would also service select areas with designated properties just off of Broad Street, including 1300 Fairmount Ave. (the new Broadridge apartment tower, where the Aldi is); 1406 and 1408 Ridge Ave. (home to a series of small storefronts at the Fairmount intersection), and 1361-3 W. Seltzer St.
If Council votes to approve the BID on Thursday, that doesn’t mean it would start right away. The North Broad Renaissance proposal suggests it launch on Jan. 1, 2024.
“We talked to property owners, some of the business owners, who said ‘Shalimar we really want to see this, but if we can push it back a year or so that’d be really great,’” Thomas said. That cushion “gives us a lot of time to continue outreach and to continue having our meetings, making sure we keep property owners and businesses educated and informed.”