BIDs can play role in climate resiliency

We need to remember business funding has its strengths, limitations

THE OCTOBER ANNOUNCEMENT of  the “Resilient Boston Harbor” proposal by Boston Mayor Martin Walsh united two critical public policy considerations: long-term adaptation response to climate change and increased access to open space. The mayor’s vision for the city’s 47-mile shoreline offers a much-needed framework to protect waterfront neighborhoods while increasing the public’s enjoyment of Boston’s abundant harbor resources.

The business community has largely embraced the mayor’s forward-thinking plan for elevating existing park land and promoting connected transportation corridors.  In South Boston, Charlestown, and East Boston, many developers continue to think differently about design and construction in an era of climate change. Placing electrical systems on higher floors is becoming par for the course; the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown is a great example of a waterfront property that is built with resiliency measures as a top priority.

However, as the mayor has said, we cannot produce an effective defense against climate change on a property-by-property basis.  We will need effective partnerships between the public and private sectors to determine how to pay for resilient public open spaces, and creation of district-wide resiliency infrastructure. The idea of district-level funding – including business improvement districts, or BIDs – has emerged as one potential mechanism to facilitate and sustain future resiliency investments.

The real estate community has a track record of civic leadership in supporting public spaces, most recently through the Greenway BID to protect and enhance the jewel of a green space downtown. BIDs can play a role in future resiliency efforts, but it’s important to understand characteristics of successful BIDs and also recognize their limits.

By definition, BIDs are designed to effectively deliver a higher level of services in specific neighborhoods for a well-defined purpose. BIDs succeed when they provide a delicate balance between voluntary acceptance of slightly higher property taxes inside a district in exchange for high-quality, vibrant public amenities that sustain and build upon improvements to the built environment.

BIDs are not a silver bullet for every challenge. BID revenue can never replace comprehensive financing programs that support large-scale public infrastructure projects. BID funds must always be the complement and not the replacement to the public sector’s role in delivering the traditional public services.  The Greenway BID funds, for example, are only a portion of the funding necessary to support the annual costs of running these parks. Funding is also contributed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the city of Boston, and the Greenway Conservancy through an agreement that runs through 2023.  Finally, BIDs are not designed to support capital infrastructure projects.

And scale is important. The Greenway BID provides $1.5 million each year for maintenance and enhancements to the park spaces – an ample amount of money, but more manageable when shared by the major properties located directly along the Greenway.  A BID that sought to generate hundreds or even tens of millions of dollars for a public infrastructure project would put contributors at a competitive disadvantage to properties outside BID boundary lines or in other areas of the region.

In other words, a key to a successful BID is funding that is limited, focused, and complementary.  An overwhelming majority of property owners in the Greenway District – 82 percent – ultimately endorsed a funding plan because property owners felt comfortable the plan met these criteria.

One promising financing model our region could consider in promoting resiliency stems from legislation passed in 1997 to create the Massachusetts Convention and Exhibition Center in South Boston. The Commonwealth defined a special finance district in South Boston waterfront area to collect and dedicate revenue from hotel, sales, and meals taxes to the construction and operation of the convention center.  Additional revenue sources, such as parking surcharges and rental car fees, also contribute to this fund. Another historic and successful example is the partnership between the federal government, the state, and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority to finance the cleanup of Boston Harbor.  These big efforts worked to create the vibrant Boston we know today, and they can be replicated again.

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The mayor is taking positive steps to redesign waterfront parks with a goal of flood protection zones and ever-vibrant gateways to Boston Harbor.  To build upon this thoughtful vision, the private sector is ready to partner with city, state, and federal government representatives to produce a funding strategy that is thoughtful, collaborative, and realistic.  Each group has a role to play in the future of this region, and only by working together can we be effective in protecting our coastline, economy, and residents.

Rick Dimino is president and CEO of A Better City.