And why do they have so many names?
Beginning in Canada, so-called “Business Improvement Districts” (BIDs) rapidly spread through America as a response to what was characterized as a “decaying” urban core. In Portland, there are currently two operating “Enhanced Service Districts” – Downtown’s “Clean & Safe” and “Go Lloyd” around the convention center.
So how well have BIDs/ESDs performed in other places? UC Berkeley Law School recently published a comprehensive report on BIDs in California titled “Homeless Exclusion Districts” giving a good overview.
BIDs – What are they, and where did they come from?
In the United States, Business Improvement Districts began to appear in the 1960s during a larger process of neo-liberal reform that included economic development, education, health, and policing and welfare policy.
Among the early advocates for BIDs were private-sector interests who wanted to find a way to revitalize urban areas struggling in the wake of mass suburbanization and “white flight.”
Over the 50 or so years since then, BIDs have become widespread, although their function, scope, and even what they are called vary between different states and localities. For example, BIDs may be referred to as “Neighborhood Improvement Districts,” “Special Improvement Districts,” or, as in Portland: “Enhanced Service Districts.” Their functions may include anything from simply putting up holiday decorations on a local shopping street to the implementation and maintenance of extensive surveillance systems in the name of public safety.
The fact the many hundreds of BIDs we now have in the U.S. operate in a variety of ways should not obscure the reality these entities re-draw the boundary between the state and the market, giving private interests more power and control over space—the primary raw material of wealth in the city.
Because BIDs often start out as seemingly innocuous entities whose function is to simply boost the quality of life in a particular urban district, it can be difficult for the public to understand why they are problematic.
THE PROBLEM WITH BIDS
BIDs have a dark side. They lack clear avenues of accountability and operate with little public oversight. They criminalize houseless populations, accelerate gentrification and displacement, and suppress civil liberties by turning public streets into zones of control by corporate interests.
Smaller BIDs can sometimes grow into large and powerful organizations that exert enormous influence over the character of whole neighborhoods, such as the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership in New York City, which formed when three separate BIDs in the area melded into one, forming a “BID on steroids.”
Leadership within BIDs is often heavily skewed toward real estate industry figures, who use the BID’s power and resources to reshape the city according to their own vision and economic interests.
For all these reasons, anyone who cares about democratic principles should be very concerned when a new BID, or ESD, is proposed in their city or neighborhood.