Austin Street businesses mull over BID

By Tien-Shun Lee

If a proposal to establish a Forest Hills business improvement district is approved, by this time next year landlords along Austin Street and several neighboring streets could be paying an additional $31.39 per front foot of property per year in assessments.

The idea for the Austin Street BID, which would encompass some 290 businesses between Austin Street to the south, Queens Boulevard to the north, Yellowstone Boulevard to the west and Ascan Avenue to the east, was started by several property owners and merchants who were voluntarily spending many hours collecting money for extra sanitation, holiday lighting and other services not provided by city agencies.

About 25 percent of the assessments would go toward administrative costs. The rest of the monies would be allocated for maintenance, holiday lighting, promotion and advertising, reduced parking rates, and other services to help attract customers to the busy commercial area, said Stan Markowicz, a member of the BID’s steering committee. He works for Muss Development Co., a real estate development company located at 118-35 Queens Blvd.

While some landlords would pay the extra costs themselves, many landlords would pass the BID’s assessments, or taxes, down to their tenants. In order to do so, they would have to have a clause in their lease that states that they have the right to pass on costs, said Markowicz.

Only property owners, and not merchants, ultimately would be allowed to vote on whether or not the BID should be established.

In order for the BID to go into effect, 51 percent of landlords polled must support the idea. In addition, public hearings must be held, and the assessment must be approved by the community board and the City Council.

Several merchants interviewed were skeptical of the idea.    

“I don’t know about this. I’ve been hearing both sides of it, and either way it’s the store people who pay,” said Tony D’Angelo, the owner of Spectrym Hair Salon at 72-02 Austin St. “How do we know that there’s not someone who’s jacking up the price of how much we need to keep this place up?”

D’Angelo currently contributes about $200 a year for holiday lighting and $150 per year for the Doe Fund, an organization which hires homeless people to clean streets and sidewalks. The voluntary contribution is collected by several property owners and merchants, who donate their time to administering sanitation and lighting services.

“One of the reasons we wanted to form a BID is there are other things we want to do, and we just can’t find the volunteers,” Markowicz said.

Markowicz currently devotes two to three hours a week to helping to collect the $50,000 a year for the Doe Fund and $20,000 a year for holiday lighting.

“It’s always been the same people who contribute and the same people who don’t contribute. It’s always been unfair that way,” added D’Angelo. “I guess this BID would make everybody contribute.”

The Austin St. BID’s steering committee, which consists of eight property owners, six merchants, local public officials and leaders of the Forest Hills Chamber of Commerce, estimated that expenses to operate the first year of the BID would add up to about $291,000.

Some merchants thought this figure was too high and preferred to keep the current system of voluntary donations.

“It’s a typical rip-off in New York City,” said Leonard Weiss, the president of Sylvan Parking, which has two locations in the Garment Center and Times Square of Manhattan in addition to a garage on Queens Boulevard. “Real estate taxes are supposed to pay for the same thing so we’re getting double taxation.”

Weiss said he currently pays $5,000 to $6,000 a year for the Garment Center BID in Manhattan and $9,000 a year for the Times Square BID.

“They all start off low, and then before you know it, it goes through the roof,” Weiss said.

But Joyce Coward, the director of Queens Neighborhood Development at the city Department of Business Services who is overseeing the Austin Street BID establishment process, said BIDs in other parts of the city had notably improved business in their areas.

For example, before the establishment of the Myrtle Avenue and Steinway Street BIDs, there was a reasonably high vacancy rate on both of those streets. After the establishment of the BIDs, any vacancies became hot commodities that usually were filled within days.

“This is a choice shopping street. It should look it and sound it,” Coward said.

The next public meeting to discuss the BID will be held on Thursday, Nov. 7, at 9 a.m. at Cafe Piu Bello, at 70-09 Austin St.

“We hope to bring out the opposition,” Markowicz said. “If it’s going to happen, let’s find out about it now.”


    Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com, or call 229-0300, Ext. 155