Cities Seek Disney-Style Cleanliness and Safety

Private cleaning crews to debut in capital

Walt Disney World on the Potomac?

Take a stroll around downtown Washington, D.C., and that's not exactly the image that springs to mind.

Pennsylvania Avenue, the grand boulevard that links the White House and the Capitol, is nice enough. But head north a block or two, and you'll find pockets of urban blight marked by derelict shops and mothballed office buildings.

Now, as D.C. business leaders implement a plan to revitalize the commercial heart of the city, property owners have made "clean and safe" their mantra. Cleanup crews and walkie-talkie-toting security guards are at the core of a $7.7 million-a-year program that will also improve lighting, parking, and signage as well as help the homeless.

What's striking is that the property owners within this 120-block business improvement district, or BID, have agreed to tax themselves to fund the services. All properties must pay.

The nation's capital is part of the latest wave of cities to start BIDs. While some mayors have resisted allowing BIDs as a potential political threat, others, such as those in Boston, Los Angeles, and Detroit, are also now embracing the idea. BIDs alone don't equal urban renewal; rather, they have emerged as an important privately funded support to cities' revival plans that include attracting suburbanites and tourists - by day and after dark.

Think of a suburban shopping mall or a theme park or a place like Colonial Williamsburg, says Richard Bradley, president of D.C.'s Downtown Business Improvement District.

"What makes these places work is that they're managed environments," says Mr. Bradley, who aims to attract suburbanites as well as tourists. "People want to come down into a public place and feel safe and secure, feel order has been maintained, that there's a sense of specialness."

Nationally, the first BIDs started about 20 years ago, but since the late '80s the concept has really taken off. Now the number of BIDs is estimated to range from 450 to 1,200. New York City alone now has about 40 of them; the newer ones are credited with helping to revitalize Times Square and lower Manhattan. Philadelphia's seven-year-old BID is so well-kept that the city has shed its Filthydelphia moniker.

Des Moines is starting a BID. So is Spencer, Iowa, population 20,000. Of course, Iowans don't face the same kinds of challenges as D.C. (Last year, there were 18 murders in all of metropolitan Des Moines versus 397 just in D.C.) But "clean and safe" remains the common goal.

"We're putting more effort into hospitality, handing out guides, maps, brochures," says Dave Feehan of Des Moines' "Operation Downtown," who hopes to hire part-time actors and musicians to brighten up street life.

Experts on BIDs urge perspective when rating the districts' effectiveness. In Philadelphia, the much-heralded BID was formed not long before the city's dynamic mayor, Ed Rendell, took office and engineered Philadelphia's rescue from near-bankruptcy. In addition, the national economic boom of the '90s deserves some credit for Philadelphia's resurgence.

But one fact of Philly life, says one expert, can certainly be attributed to the BID. "The streets are cleaner, there's no question about it," says Janet Rothenberg Pack, an economist writing a book on BIDs who has lived in the Philly BID since its formation.

Ms. Pack adds, though, that a city can't rely on a BID for its salvation. In fact, a BID stands a better chance of succeeding if it encompasses a manageable area and limits its goals. The second rule of thumb, she says, is to hire a good manager - another area where Philadelphia has succeeded.

BIDs are different from other types of neighborhood associations, because they are nonvoluntary. In D.C., once a majority of propertyowners agreed to the plan - a self-imposed tax of a penny a month per square foot - all private properties in the BID are required to pay the tax. Typically, the tax is passed through to tenants. The federal government, which owns some buildings in the BID, has agreed to provide financial support, as have other tax-exempt propertyowners.

The D.C. BID - a 120-block area just east of the White House will feature a staff of 55 brightly uniformed, unarmed security workers, who will carry walkie-talkies and report suspicious behavior to police. An additional crew of 30 will keep the streets clean and remove graffiti. The D.C. BID has also earmarked $340,000 to help the homeless get care and to establish a men's drop-in center.

Some homeless advocates worry that the real effect will be just to push the homeless outside the BID. Mary Ann Gleason of the National Coalition for the Homeless says that, nationwide, the experience with BIDs has been mixed. In Atlanta, for example, homeless have been arrested. In others, such as New York's Times Square BID, a drop-in homeless center with a professional staff has been helpful, she says.

So if BIDs are such a great idea, why doesn't every city have them? Politics, mainly. Some mayors feel they represent a loss of control, says Bradley of D.C. BID, former head of an international business association that worked with BIDs. Only now are Boston, Detroit, and Los Angeles jumping in. Chicago is a notable holdout.

In Washington, the BID is slated to start in December with the opening of a new professional sports arena, the MCI Center. The D.C. BID also encompasses a planned new convention center and world-class opera house. Talks are under way for new national museums of photography and music. Elsewhere in D.C., several other BIDs are already in the works.

Most local business people interviewed in the downtown BID were happy with the plan, having long ago given up on getting improved service from D.C.'s financially hobbled government. "We would love to get more clientele from the suburbs, but coming into the city for dinner is frightening to them," says Michelle Pangaud, co-owner of Gerard's Place, a cozy French restaurant on McPherson Square. "I think this plan will help."

Around the corner, though, deli owner Walter Loeb only grumbles. "We're paying enough off-the-wall taxes as it is," he says.

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