Down­town is not Dis­ney­land

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - BREAKING NEWS: 423-757-NEWS - DAVID COOK

I first heard of busi­ness im­prove­ment dis­tricts (BIDs) a decade ago, when a friend, Dr. Ran­dall Am­ster of Ge­orge­town Uni­ver­sity, was protest­ing an at­tempt by Tempe, Ari­zona, to trans­form its down­town. Tempe had cre­ated a BID. Funded by an in­ter­est-free city loan and tax on busi­ness own­ers, the BID cre­ated ser­vices that went beyond what the Tempe gov­ern­ment of­fered.

A sort of city within a city. A pri­vate en­tity within a pub­lic one.

Tempe’s BID gained con­trol over side­walks, and be­gan to en­force a no-sit­ting, no-sleep­ing, no-loi­ter­ing pol­icy.

Pri­vate se­cu­rity guards were hired.

Sur­veil­lance cam­eras in­stalled.

There was a fo­cused in­crease on clean­li­ness and trash col­lec­tion.

A crack­down on protest and street ac­tivism.

The BID tried to de­fine down­town Tempe as a place only cer­tain peo­ple — the clean, the wealthy, the shop­pers — were wel­come.

The goal of the BID was not democ­racy.

It was about some­thing else.

“The san­i­ti­za­tion of space, and the crim­i­nal­iza­tion of sta­tus,” Am­ster wrote in his book, “Street Peo­ple and the Con­tested Realms of Pub­lic Space.”

Since then, BIDs, also known as cen­tral busi­ness dis­tricts, have flour­ished across the U.S. By some es­ti­mates, 1,000 ex­ist to­day.

There’s talk of cre­at­ing one here.

“It’s a way to pro­vide added re­sources above what the city will do,” Kim White, head of River City Co., said re­cently. (River City Co. and a Colorado con­sul­tant are hold­ing meet­ings about a BID here.)

Here’s the rough idea: 500 or so down­town prop­erty and busi­ness own­ers would pay a fee — 20 cents to 60 cents — on each $100 of as­sessed prop­erty.

A se­lect group of prop­erty own­ers — a board, un­elected by the pub­lic — would then des­ig­nate how those funds are spent.

Just imag­ine.

The BID board wants a cleaner down­town? Dozens of new trash cans ap­pear, com­plete with a Chat­tanooga BID logo. Crews of pri­vate main­te­nance work­ers pa­trol the BID district, emp­ty­ing and pick­ing up trash.

But it’s not just lit­ter: a cleaner down­town also means less vis­i­ble home­less­ness. Crews of hired se­cu­rity guards steer, sweep and push away home­less folks from en­try­ways. Side­walks. Al­leys. Parks. Pan­han­dling dis­ap­pears.

Side­walks, once pub­lic prop­erty, are now rented by busi­ness own­ers. Protest van­ishes, as the BID rarely grants per­mis­sion to march down the side­walks.

Ad­di­tional sur­veil­lance cam­eras ap­pear.

It’s not hard to see the dystopian pos­si­bil­i­ties. BIDs al­low a se­lect few unchecked con­trol over our down­town land­scape, which al­ready suf­fers from soft gate­keep­ing. (Sky-high rents, for ex­am­ple.)

Would a Black Lives Mat­ter march be wel­come within a BID?

Would lo­cal preach­ers who of­fer free food to the home­less?

Street mu­si­cians and buskers? Slack­ers and skaters?

“BIDs can hire its own se­cu­rity to pa­trol an area, ef­fec­tively con­trol who is of­fered re­tail space, kick out street ven­dors, and in­flu­ence leg­is­la­tion and ex­pan­sion ef­forts,” writes Max Rivlin-Nadler in New Repub­lic. (The es­say ti­tle? “Busi­ness Im­prove­ment Dis­tricts Ruin Neigh­bor­hoods.”)

I can un­der­stand the al­lure of a BID here. Down­town Chat­tanooga has been the belle of the ball for years, her­alded near and far. Yet if its luster has faded, as some say, it’s only be­cause of rapid, unchecked growth else­where.

Chat­tanooga is can­ni­bal­iz­ing it­self; down­town must com­pete with other parts of the city — North Shore, Main Street, the West End, South Broad — for money, tourism, at­ten­tion. (Move the Chat­tanooga Look­outs sta­dium and it’s go­ing to get a whole lot worse.)

There’s only so much money to go around. Only so many res­tau­rants folks can visit. (When is our ho­tel bub­ble go­ing to burst?)

When rents are ex­or­bi­tant, wages low and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion en­cour­aged, then con­di­tions cre­ate home­less­ness.

And BIDs aren’t friendly to home­less folks.

Last month, the U.C.-Berke­ley School of Law re­leased a study on Cal­i­for­nia BIDs and home­less­ness. Its find­ings:

› “BIDs use their own pri­vate se­cu­rity and co­or­di­nate closely with lo­cal po­lice de­part­ments to en­force anti-home­less laws and oth­er­wise ex­clude or re­move home­less peo­ple from their dis­tricts.”

› “Pri­vately run dis­tricts, mostly funded by prop­erty as­sess­ments, use their power and re­sources to ad­vo­cate for anti-home­less poli­cies and to sup­port polic­ing prac­tices that ex­clude or drive out home­less peo­ple.”

Down­town Chat­tanooga is not meant solely for con­sumerism or en­ter­tain­ment.

It’s not meant for make-be­lieve, where only clean, pre­dictable and en­ter­tain­ing things hap­pen.

As Am­ster says: if you want that, go to Dis­ney­land.

David Cook writes a Sun­day col­umn and can be reached at dcook@times­free or 423-757-6329. Fol­low him on Face­book at DavidCookTFP.


Keim Shirley, left, puts his arm around Tracy Corello in a home­less en­camp­ment be­hind the city’s well­ness cen­ter on East 11th Street on April 6.

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