Hastings Crossing BIA, along with several other BIAs from Metro Vancouver and several hundred from around the world, just enjoyed a week-long intensive blast of thought provoking content in New York. The International Downtown Association treated us to a jam packed schedule of speakers, guided tours and panel discussions examining current trends in planning, place-making, urban design and architecture as well as business and economic development and even a little bit about social impact, social innovation and the ethical considerations of Business Improvement Areas in low-income neighbourhoods. HxBIA Executive Director Wes Regan (me, now switching to first person) was one of those speakers along with Patricia Barnes of Vancouver’s East Village and Annie MacInnes of Kensington BIA in Calagary. The three EDs shared our different case studies of how our respective BIAs approach collaboration and dealing with conflict in our respective areas. I’m happy to say the talk, which took place in a lecture hall at the Brooklyn Law School, was well attended and well received (a quarter of the room appears in the photo above)
The presentations covered things as diverse as Calgary’s flood response and how Kensington businesses and residents banded together in the aftermath of that disaster to Hastings North BIA’s rebranding to to East Village and the acrimony caused when residents of the adjacent area thought the City or BIA had somehow rebranded the entire Hastings-Sunrise neighbourhood. It also covered a lot of the work that Hastings Crossing BIA has engaged in over the past three years in developing collaborative BIA programming and dealing with tensions arising due to development/gentrification in the area.
One of the most interesting moments came in our Q & A session when an attendee from Ottawa asked about my thoughts on Insite and how the businesses felt about having it in the HxBIA Catchment Area. I don’t think he was familiar with me or with the BIA as it seemed like he was caught a bit off guard when both Patricia Barnes and myself firmly defended it. He asked because a second Insite was recently proposed, but not approved, in Toronto, and talk is now happening around one in Ottawa supposedly.
For those who don’t know, Insite is North America’s first supervised safe injection site. It was informed by studies and practice relating to harm reduction in Europe that showed supervised safe injection sites to be a public heath asset in the fight to combat spread of disease and deaths from overdose. Insite in Vancouver also offers resources or assistance to access resources that help combat addiction and aim to help stabilize people struggling with addiction. It has also been a target of Steven Harper and other Conservatives as an enabler or propagator of addiction and an icon of the general milieu of immorality that low-income communities are too often associated with or blamed for by some of us in the wealthier rungs of social strata. Supervised safe injection sites are out of step with the more mega-prison focused approach to dealing with drugs that Harper and his Cabinet have clearly committed to. This despite even dire warnings from conservative lawmakers and politicians in the United States clearly admitting the enormous failure and cost to the public purse of the prison-centric War on Drugs.
I was involved in phone conversations last year with Toronto Police Department, BIAs and one of the health authorities about the proposed site. I spoke favorably of it then and I was sorry to hear that it wasn’t approved. Insite saves lives. Insite has helped reduce the spread of diseases like Hepatitis and HIV-AIDS. From a “self interest” perspective Insite has also reduced the chances of someone over-dosing and dying in front of your business where people shop or in the alley behind it where your staff put garbage and recycling. It was when I made that last statement at the Brooklyn Law School that I think the naysayers in the crowd “got it” as morally repugnant as it may remain to them.
A few folks came up afterwards and thanked us for engaging in the discussion, which meandered from public health impacts to poverty and mental health to the question of whether harm reduction in general enables addiction. Communities large and small, urban and rural, rich and poor, are all dealing with addiction issues in varying forms. One Executive Director spoke with us at length about the challenges of addiction in his BIA, a very heated debate within his own board and between him and other BIA executive directors had apparently begun over the topic. He was trying to figure out how to reduce the visible drug use in his area and contribute to improving public health, of both people and spaces in his area, but was concerned that putting a needle exchange or other harm reduction assets in his BIA would attract more trouble than it mitigated.
I feel that our session really demonstrated how BIAs or BIDs as they are often called in the U.S. have evolved in their complexity well beyond their original function. A major takeaway from the talk was something Patricia Barnes pointed out in her summary. To paraphrase her, as people return to increasingly attractive and vibrant urban centers and as cities become more dense, businesses and residents will commonly, if not increasingly, find themselves in situations of conflict and/or collaboration. Where a business district or commercial corridor overlaps or passes through a neighbourhood questions of identity, responsibility and accountability will crop up time and time again. Place making or place caring necessarily involves identity. Who is responsible for a space? Who has the right to “make” that space? Who has a right to influence policy in that space? By law, BIAs are given a lot of power and freedom to be responsible for and to make spaces/places. In New York, 23 new BIAs have been created in a frenzy of business development, urban design and place making just in the bast 12 years. This brings New York’s total to 67 BIDs, with budgets ranging in the millions and millions to under $100,000. Vancouver currently has 22 BIAs including Hastings Crossing, and they work we have engaged in has changed dramatically since the 1980s as an article I wrote for the Vancouver Observer last year recounts. We need to communicate that constantly as our programming becomes more complex in nature too.
Our presentations given at the IDA conference clearly showed the need for effective communications and engagement if BIAs or BIDs are to be successful in leveraging collaboration and mitigating conflict. They also showed that in some circumstances BIAs or BIDs also have to assert what is within their rights to decide. Regardless, communicating effectively is key in either approach. There will always be loud voices or big personalities that just don’t agree with what you as an Executive Director or the BIA in general does or says sometimes. Some people will appreciate Insite for example, while others will deride it. Some people will feel uneasy about a BIA branding or re-branding a commercial strip in the middle of their neighbourhood. Change can be off putting to some, particularly when they don’t have the full information to work with. Understanding where your best choice or your best potential action lies on that blurry line between the need for decisiveness and the need for collaboration/caution will be an important exercise in leadership for urban BIAs in particular moving forward.