By Roland Li
Two weeks ago, the Columbus Avenue Business Improvement District (BID) held its annual food event, “New Taste of the Upper West Side,” on May 20 and 21, drawing over 1,500 guests and selling out tickets. It featured 35 restaurants, ranging from the upscale Dovetail and Landmarc to the casual offerings of Shake Shack and Insomnia Cookies.
“It was remarkably successful,” said Barbara Adler, the BID’s executive director and one of its two full time employees.
Proceeds from the fête, totaling $10,000, were donated to renovate the school cafeteria at 100 West 77th Street, shared by the Computer School, Anderson School and West Prep Academy. The event is held in the schoolyard, so it was a natural recipient, said Adler.
Most of Manhattan is under the jurisdiction of a business improvement district, which provides services such as street cleaning, landscaping and promotion of local businesses to a particular area. Funding is often obtained through dues from local businesses.
The Observer recently dubbed the BIDs the shadow mayors of the city, citing powerful groups such as the Times Square Alliance and Grand Central Partnership. The Downtown Alliance, the city’s largest BID with a budget $13 million, has been integral in the area’s transformation and magnetism for tourism. In areas without BIDs, such as Soho and Chinatown, efforts are underway to create them.
Although the Columbus Avenue BID is on the small side, with an annual budget of around $308,000, it is marked by an enthusiasm and attention to detail for the neighborhood. The group has funded the planting of over 120 trees this year, and meticulously charts around 200 local retailers on its website, which was recently relaunched.
Over a decade ago, local organizers, unsatisfied at the way the reconstruction of Columbus Avenue was being handled, hired a consultant and sought to form the BID. Adler, a longtime local resident and member of Community Board 7, which covers the Upper West Side, applied for the position and was hired.
The BID covers 15 blocks along Columbus Avenue, from 67th Street to 82nd Street, boundaries that are completely within the Central Park West historic district, which prevents virtually all new development. The district was formed partially in reaction to the development of the Park Belvedere at 101 West 79th Street, across the street from the Museum of Natural History, said Adler. The 28-story building towered over the neighboring low-rise structures, and in Adler’s view, it remains out of context with the neighborhood.
Thus, the stretch along Columbus is mixed-use, with ground floor retail, along with the occasional second floor, topped with residential. A vibrant swath, changes have come with the shifting of tenants, rather than new development.
“Over the past 10 years, we’ve had many more national chains,” said Adler. “Columbus Avenue used to be completely mom and pop stores.”
Retail brokers will reach out to the BID, requesting details of neighboring tenants and information on the neighborhood. And from the looks of it, they are closing deals. Adler said there is only one vacant retail space in the area, at the corner of 71st Street, but a lease has been signed.
New clothing retailers like Theory, Rag and Bone and Paige have given the area a boutique feel, and Crain’s reported in April that Gap will open the city’s first Athleta, a sportswear brand, at the Brodsky Organization’s 216 Columbus Ave, at West 70th Street. On the other hand, apparel designer Kenneth Cole closed at 353 Columbus Avenue, as part of a citywide downsizing.
However, the district is still home to offbeat offerings: Make Meaning, a colorful craft store at 329 Columbus Avenue that opened in September and Maxilla & Mandible Ltd., which sells dinosaur bones.
“They seem to thrive here,” said Adler.
Adler studied at Pratt, with a background in illustration. She would later attend the School of Visual Arts to gain experience in digital graphic design, and subsequently taught herself in the field. Now, she develops the BID’s map and guide of the area, which is updated annually. It will issue this year’s edition in June.
She was served for 22 years on Community Board 7 before stepping down this spring. Adler was co-chair of the transportation committee, and remains a strong advocate of bike lanes.
The Columbus Avenue BID will have its annual meeting over the summer, with writer Jimmy Breslin as the speaker.