Volume 80, Number 7 | September 23 - 29, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Ellen Baer

Hudson Square business improvement district turns 1

BY John Bayles

Starting a new organization is always tough. But when Ellen Baer was tapped to run the Hudson Square Connection she was hired without a staff in place, without an office and without a board of directors. And, the steering committee that sought her out and gave her the job in May 2009 informed her they wanted the business improvement district up and running with its doors open in a mere two months.

“Personally, I don’t think they thought I could do it,” Baer said. “But I never thought about that. I just got to work.”

Baer rented a small space in the WNYC offices on Varick Street. She had to ask herself what exactly she was hiring for before she could even begin posting the job descriptions. She looked at her mission, determined her staffing and began the interviewing process.

The Hudson Square Connection is one of roughly 65 business improvement districts in the city and its major priorities are streetscape and sustainability and marketing. Unlike almost 90 percent of the other BIDs, the H.S.C. is unique in that it does not have an operations component. Many BIDs have a sanitation and/or a security element; the H.S.C. does not.

Baer pored over résumés and interviewed over 60 people to fill four positions: senior economic development analyst, director of marketing, director of streetscape and sustainability and a special assistant.

“I had a temporary office at WNYC and one day a guy who worked there looked at me and said, ‘Wow, you’re interviewing a lot of people’,” recalled Baer.

Baer said she was lucky.

“It was June 2009 and a lot of people in New York were out of work,” said Baer.

She found the four people she believed were perfect for the job. And today, only 14 months in, Baer is more than satisfied with her choices. When asked if she would credit much of the BID’s first-year success to her staff, Baer said, “I’d credit it entirely to them.”

The job was not finished just yet. Baer had to do the little things, like open a bank account, with no established credit, and find office space. She used some old connections from her days in the land-use business to get a bridge loan from the Fund for the City of New York. The Fund’s executive director, Mary McCormack, now sits on Baer’s board of directors.

She used another connection to find office space at 180 Varick, and Baer said the space, which is filled with natural light and is incredibly spacious, was love at first sight.

“I looked at a half-dozen spaces and this space felt like everything we were trying to achieve with the BID,” said Baer. “It overlooks some of the great art deco buildings in the neighborhood and a courtyard with this industrial-looking piping. It just felt like Hudson Square in all its many guises.”

Providing a ‘sense of place’
“We came into a community that really didn’t have a voice,” said Baer.

Baer said what makes her and her staff feel best is when someone in the community calls them to ask for help. In the first year, Baer and her staff have met with hundreds and hundreds of people and visited hundreds of offices. She said they go in and tell people the BID is here to help.

“We say, ‘We’re working for you,’” said Baer.

A major role of the H.S.C. is “place-making.” Baer said she wants to give old and new businesses in the district, which is bounded by West Houston Street on the north, Canal Street on the south, Sixth Avenue on the east and Greenwich Street on the west, an identity. She hopes to be able afford them with a sense of place, to let them know “where they are and what that means.”

“Hudson Square is a place that is authentically New York, but still retains a small- town feel,” she said. “But there is this palatable vibe of excitement that exists.”

Baer likes to say the H.S.C. job is to try and bring the creativity that exists within the walls of the district’s buildings out onto the street. A neighborhood that was once populated by paper companies and the printing industry is now a booming hub of creativity, with numerous graphic design firms, a major radio station and even a company that produces catchy jingles for television commercials.

First-year highlights
So far, the BID is doing a great job. They held their first event in the offices of Saatchi & Saatchi last fall with a focus on sustainability.

“It was an exciting first event,” Baer said. “It was a very serious discussion on how to live it and not just talk about it.”

Baer also remembered the first open house the BID held and said it was “exciting just seeing everyone exchange business cards.”

Another major role of the BID is establishing relationships with the local community board, in Hudson Square’s case, Community Board 2. At one C.B. 2 meeting Baer and her staff gave a presentation on one of the BID’s major projects. They were presenting their plan for the plaza at Spring Street and Sixth Avenue.

“When we were through, the community board and the audience applauded,” said Baer.

Two tracks
The H.S.C. is always working on two tracks, according to Baer: the long term and the short term. For the short term, the BID is concentrating on “the low- hanging fruit.”

“Our top priority now is making the area more pedestrian friendly,” said Baer. “Things like painting crosswalks and having appropriate traffic signals.”

As for the long term, the H.S.C. just issued an request for proposals to form a streetscape planning team and has received 23 responses. Baer called it a “master vision framework for the neighborhood.”

And as with any new business, there are growing pains to accompany the highlights. For Baer, she said the main issue has been fighting the optimism that runs rampant in her office.

“It’s almost become a cliché in the office. Everyone says how happy they are, and how passionate and how excited they are to get the ideas off the ground,” said Baer.

“We’re just learning to own the fact that things don’t and won’t happen as fast as we’d like.”

So she and her staff have learned to relish the “little things,” like being applauded by the local community board.

“We really do love it here,” said Baer.

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