January 8, 2019

Boston business improvement district offers example for Worcester

Photo/Flick/Moonjazz
Boston's Downtown Crossing neighborhood became part of a business improvement district in 2011. The neighborhood offers an example for what Worcester's new business improvement district hopes to become.

Downtown Worcester still has to fight against memories people have of when the neighborhood had fewer residents or when it was dominated by an empty shopping mall.

Boston's Downtown Crossing fought a similar challenge, with people worried about crime and recalling the neighborhood's history as the infamous Combat Zone, the city's old adult entertainment district.

Formation of a business improvement district has helped Downtown Crossing and the adjacent Theater District grow into some of Boston's most dynamic neighborhoods. Since the district's start in 2011, $26 million has been spent on security improvements, landscaping, signs, events programming and staffing for ambassadors who help keep sidewalks clean or give directions to passerby.

As Worcester embarks on its own improvement district — the state's eighth — in downtown this year, Boston's Downtown Crossing offers a path forward. Worcester's district is expected to have about $950,000 in revenue through special tax collections each year.

[Worcester business improvement district to leverage $950K a year to upgrade the neighborhood]

Major players in the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District say they were guided by a mantra of making the neighborhood clean, safe and welcoming.

"If you see it as increasing one's taxes, that's almost bound to fail," said Ron Druker, the president of Boston developer Druker Co. and a longtime board member for the Boston district. "If you see it as controlling one's own destiny and augmenting city services, then it's a real benefit. That's the way we've looked at it."

A key to the district's success has been communication among property owners, Druker said.

"There needs to be a real spirit of cooperation to make it successful," he said.

The district's chairman, Jack Spurr, said improved communication has been a major benefit to come from the district.

"The whole neighborhood is talking to each other," said Spurr, the vice chairman of Boston real estate firm A.W. Perry.

Changing perceptions of the neighborhood was important, Spurr said, calling the timing right for Worcester to take the same step.

"Worcester is really poised for this," he said. "It seems like a great time to start a BID."

The neighborhood in Boston has come so far, the penthouse at the 60-story Millennium Tower, which opened in 2016 in the middle of the district, was listed late last year for sale for $45 million.

"Without the BID," Spurr said, "I'm not sure the tower would have happened."

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