Noe Valley Voice June 2005

Community Benefit District Nears Reality

Merchants Ask for Special Tax Zone Along 24th Street

By Corrie M. Anders

Downtown Noe Valley is close to trading in its shabby-chic look for a makeover that will include steam-cleaned sidewalks, benches for resting and conversation, new signage, flower boxes, and uniformed security patrols.

The effort to revitalize 24th Street got an important okay last month as merchants and property owners along the commercial corridor agreed to tax themselves to create a special business district that will carry out the changes.

In June, the Board of Supervisors is expected to give its approval authorizing the Noe Valley Community Benefit District. Then merchants and property owners within the proposed district must vote to confirm their participation in a project that would insert Noe Valley into a growing national trend: neighborhood self-improvement.

More than 40 business and property owners along 24th Street signaled their preference when they signed a petition asking supervisors to establish the non-profit body. All businesses and property owners within the district would have to pay the assessments, which would average $85 to $125 a month, to finance a wide variety of services beyond what the city provides.

Not everyone supported the idea. But "the majority of Noe Valley property owners and merchants overwhelmingly supported it," said Carol Yenne, president of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association.

Some Shops Already Spend More

Both small and large businesses backed the plan, the culmination of a yearlong effort by the merchants group and the Friends of Noe Valley, a neighborhood civic group.

Patty Woody, whose Rabat clothing store has been a fixture on 24th Street for three decades, was enthusiastic about joining the district. Her assessments would cost about $85 a month. That's less than the $108 a month she's now spending just to have soy sauce stains, wads of bubble gum, and other "mess" steam-cleaned from the sidewalks in front of her corner store.

"I like the idea that someone else is interested in keeping the sidewalks clean," Woody said.

Vince Hogan, a 24th Street property owner and proprietor of the Valley Tavern and the Dubliner bars, said he would be "happy" to contribute to the neighborhood's upkeep.

"The money will be available for the merchants to improve the street," said Hogan, and "it'll be there for future generations." Hogan's assessments would total $150 to $175 a month.

Bell Market Briefly Upsets Cart

Winning over the number of merchants necessary to petition the Board of Supervisors for approval ran into a last-minute snag in May. Initially, officials for Bell Market, the largest business in Noe Valley, indicated the grocery store would be a part of the district. Then, without explanation, the grocer backed off--taking with it a hefty $800 in monthly assessments.

Mayor Gavin Newsom responded by writing Bell's corporate parent, Compton-based Ralphs Grocery Co., asking president Dave Hirz to reconsider the store's stance. Newson noted that the company's share of the contribution would be important to the district's viability.

"It's disappointing that they didn't join the community in this effort," said Rich Hillis, a deputy mayor for economic development.

However, the problem dissipated when the owners of the property, which Bell Market leases, signed on in favor of creating the district, Hillis said.

CBDs Finding More Converts

CBDs are similar to business improvement districts. They have been gaining in popularity around the country in recent years, as financially squeezed local governments cut back on municipal services.

Union Square currently has the city's only benefit district. It has a $1 million annual budget and has helped to transform a rundown island into an enjoyable respite for downtown shoppers, workers, and tourists. Like their counterparts in Noe Valley, civic and business leaders in the Castro, the Mission, and several other neighborhoods are working to create benefit districts.

The Noe Valley version got under way in early 2004. Yenne and Debra Niemann, president of the Friends of Noe Valley, were the driving force behind the proposal, which had strong backing from the mayor's office and Supervisor Bevan Dufty. The city chipped in $7,500 to match the $7,500 that Friends, the Merchants Association, and the East & West of Castro Street Improvement Club raised for a feasibility study.

Supervisors Likely to Say It's a Deal

Early support also showed up in the Friends' annual survey results, in which members complained about the litter and disheveled appearance of 24th Street. In March, a petition to create the district was sent out showing assessments based on square footage of the building and the size of the street frontage for each business.

Thirty percent of affected property owners needed to sign the petition asking the Board of Supervisors to create the district. The petition actually got a 50 percent response rate, according to Yenne, with three out of every four owners saying they favored the CBD concept. The petition was submitted to the supervisors on May 23.

Following a 45-minute public hearing on May 31, the supervisors' City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee unanimously forwarded the request to the full board for a June 7 final vote. If the supervisors approve, the issue then goes back to the neighborhood, where business and property owners will have 45 days to decide the district's fate by majority vote.

Visions of Trees and Flowers

Noe Valley's CBD could start operations in January and would have a first-year budget of approximately $218,000. The funds would pay for everything from new trees and flower boxes, street banners, regular sidewalk and gutter sweeping, and the removal of graffiti within 24 hours, to marketing and advertising to promote the 24th Street commercial hub. Private security guards would patrol the business strip during late afternoon and early evening hours, particularly during fall and winter when it gets dark earlier.

"It's an idea whose time has come," said Yenne. "The neighborhood will be cleaner, more lovely, and a safer place to shop and for people to live," she said. "And it will make the neighborhood a destination shopping area."

In her view, something as modest as placing more benches on the street can help to make the street more hospitable. "People like to linger while they're shopping, to sit and rest, to have a soda or a cup of coffee," said Yenne. "I've been to other neighborhoods where they've done this...and it's just so nice."

Others Concerned About Costs

Some property owners, however, expressed reservations about the district. Their concerns centered on the amount of money they would have to pay, and on fears that the makeover would turn the 24th Street into a Union Street clone.

Professional writer Mary C. McFadden said her family, which owns numerous residential and storefront properties on 24th Street, would face assessments adding up to $4,300 annually.

"Ours comes to a lot of money to help pay for businesses in the neighborhood," she said. McFadden considers the CBD an "extra tax" for services the city should be providing. The assessments come to "thousands of dollars that we can't pass on to tenants," and shops most likely would wind up charging customers higher prices to recover their costs, she said.

Real estate agent Sue Bowie, who owns the building housing Phoenix Books, has taken a neutral position on an issue that she said had merit on both sides.

Noe Valley "has rapidly become a very wealthy neighborhood, and it's a dramatic change in a short period of time over the last 20 years," Bowie said. While the neighborhood may have contemporary needs, "I know a lot of people who have been living in Noe Valley for 40, 50, or 60 years, and they're not eager to see 24th Street become another Union Street. They don't want an accelerated pace of change."

Niemann maintains, however, that the CBD would make a significant difference in the neighborhood's quality of life.

"Think about cities you like, and other neighborhoods. Why do you like them? Most people say it's the overall cleanliness and attractiveness of the neighborhood, be it from the lighting or the newsstands--which don't get turned into garbage cans--public seating, chairs, benches, flowers, plants, greenery, and trees that are maintained, protected, and new ones planted," said Niemann.

"Some would say it's the colorful banners identifying where they are, the novelty of place," she said. "This and more is what we hope for by creating a CBD for Noe Valley."

The CBD's Inner Workings

- The proposed Noe Valley Community Benefit District would start operations Jan. 1, 2006, and automatically expire 15 years later. Each year, however, businesses and property owners would have the opportunity to dissolve the district, with a 50-percent-plus-one majority vote.

- Assessments would range from a low of $50 monthly for smaller businesses and property owners, to $800 a month for larger operations, according to Carol Yenne, president of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association. The typical assessment would be $85 to $125 a month.

- Assessments could increase annually--but by no more than 5 percent.

- The CBD would encompass 168 parcels along the 24th Street commercial corridor, whose boundaries roughly parallel the Noe Valley Neighborhood Commercial District. The CBD district would stretch along 24th Street from Chattanooga Street to Douglass Street. However, purely residential properties on 24th Street between Diamond and Douglass streets would be excluded. The district contour also would wrap around and include businesses that sit just off 24th Street on Douglass, Diamond, Castro, and Church streets.