Editor's Note: Whose Job Is It, Anyway?


Five years ago, Pioneer Square was so dead that the much-revered Elliott Bay Book Company packed up and moved its store to Capitol Hill. Now, the neighborhood is coming back to life, thanks in large part to a reinvigorated Pioneer Square Business Improvement Area (BIA). BIAs are neighborhood business organizations authorized by the City of Seattle to levy assessments to raise money to pay for improvements in the community.

Pioneer Square’s BIA, managed by The Alliance for Pioneer Square, has an annual budget of $800,000, which it has been using, together with grants from the city, to repair medians, put up flower baskets, improve security, launch special events, encourage the construction of market-rate residential units and attract new businesses. One big success: Weyerhaeuser’s recent decision to move its headquarters into a new Pioneer Square building that will be completed in 2016.

Pioneer Square is just one of many neighborhoods in Seattle where BIAs have taken on added responsibilities, partly to help fill in for city and state services cut back during the great recession. Downtown Seattle’s Metropolitan Improvement District, created in 1999, has a $7.6 million budget and handles a broad range of issues, including street cleaning, transportation and even mental health outreach. The Seattle Tourism Improvement Area, established in 2011, assesses large downtown hotels $2 per occupied room to pay for marketing to attract leisure visitors to Seattle. 

Other neighborhoods are getting into the act. Capitol Hill, Chinatown-International District and SoDo each have BIAs that are stepping up their activities, while Ballard is in the process of establishing one. The University District is mapping a major transformation of the neighborhood through a partnership among property owners, businesses, renters and other interested parties to create a thriving business and retail sector centered on the University of Washington and innovative startups.

What successful BIAs all have in common is strong management, a clear vision and the taxing authority to make things happen, says Brian Scott, a principal at BDS Planning & Urban Design. Scott recently spoke to the Magnolia Chamber of Commerce, which is exploring the idea of establishing its own BIA.

BIAs clearly have had great success in mobilizing communities to get important things done. But in each case, their first order of business tends to be very straightforward: keeping the streets safe and clean. Which raises the question: When did it become the job of businesses to keep streets clean and safe?Isn’t that a fundamental task of city government? And how well is the city addressing the growing need for basic transportation and infrastructure, another basic function of government? 

These questions are pertinent as cities like Seattle seek to assume additional responsibilities such as providing early childhood education, taking care of the homeless and building affordable housing. Those are all worthy efforts, but is city government properly equipped with the finances and capabilities to accomplish those goals? While the city spends more and more each year on the homeless, for example, the problem only seems to get worse. Are we using the right approach? And a tax on multifamily housing development that the City Council is now considering to help pay for affordable housing could have the perverse effect of making rental housing even more expensive. 

The lesson of Business Improvement Areas is that the best solutions are rooted in the community. Before taking on new responsibilities, the city should make sure the solutions it proposes are good for the community and don’t end up doing more harm than good.

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