by Gregory Lebens-Higgins; Published in collaboration with Boom Town Press
Rochester Downtown Development Corporation’s (“RDDC”) Economic Growth Series: Vision~Future 2023 took place on December 5, 2023, featuring presentations from Mayor Malik Evans and County Executive Adam Bello alongside remarks from members of RDDC.
“I want you to imagine,” begins Mayor Malik Evans before launching into an idyllic depiction of a gentrified downtown Rochester: “storage factories and warehouses that have been converted into artists’ lofts, studios, and apartments. Picture the Genesee River flowing between the Corn Hill and the South Wedge neighborhoods, [and] on the banks on both sides crowds are on lawn chairs and blankets watching a concert on a floating stage.”
We are at Rochester Downtown Development Corporation’s Economic Growth Series: Vision~Future 2023, and Mayor Evans is taking the property owners, developers, and investors filling the conference room at Rochester Riverside Convention Center on a journey of economic opportunity.
“Imagine twenty-two acres of brand new real estate where the Inner Loop North has been converted into residential neighborhoods, boutique shopping, and greenspace,” he continues. “Imagine Main and Clinton, at the historic part of Rochester, no longer a visual abomination that insults the eye.”
“Imagine the day when Rochester’s economy is once again driven by the most powerful economic resource in the world: Imagination itself.” But certainly no economy runs on imagination and it is in fact profit that Evans is thinking of.
The son of a minister, Evans frequently uses poetic refrains. Here, “imagination” alludes to the “dream” invoked by Martin Luther King Jr. With Evans, this dream is contorted in the service of extreme materialism, “encourag[ing] us in the greed and exploitation which creates the sector of poverty in the midst of wealth,” as identified by King in his address on the “three evils of society.” Though Evans wants us to dream big in transforming downtown, the best he can offer is a limited vision for the material benefit of Rochester’s owner class.
No Option for Opposition
The vision of Mayor Evans and RDDC countenances no opposition to their dream to turn downtown Rochester into an entertainment district and center of investment for the wealthy. Speaking prior to Evans, Joseph Rizzo, Manager of Economic Development at NYSEG and RG&E, described a career of moving economic development programs forward in a “swift and nimble manner.” RDDC seems poised to do the same with the planned Business Improvement District (or “BID”).
RG&E’s role as lead sponsor of Vision~Future is a perfect pairing. Hoping to ward off calls for a public utility, RG&E is attempting to improve public relations with spending throughout the community, including events to promote the BID. Under a public utility, similar spending would be subject to democratic control with recipients selected by and for the benefit of the community. RG&E’s quasi-government partnership—in effect a corporate expansionary program—is the perfect blueprint for the BID’s designers.
According to the Draft Downtown Rochester Business Improvement District Plan, the BID would levy a special assessment (or additional tax) on downtown properties. These funds would be controlled by a board of directors, the majority of whom “must represent property owners within the BID boundary,” and would be used for services including event promotion, supporting small businesses, maintenance and beautification, and supplementing social services. Importantly, these funds may only be used within the footprint of the BID.
How best to collect and distribute funds for Rochester are major decisions deserving of input by the entire community. However, RDDC’s demonstrated intent is to limit democratic engagement on the issue by implementing the BID without proper scrutiny. As early as February 2022, Bob Duffy, who is on RDDC’s Board of Directors and receives more than $200,000 annually from RG&E, spoke of “moving rapidly toward the approval” of the BID.
Although RDDC’s guiding principles include “community centered,” it has failed to ask whether the BID is something the community wants. Galin Brooks, President and CEO of RDDC, claimed to gather community input from speaking to “thousands of people.” But such interactions have been a fig leaf to hide the undemocratic nature of the process.
The limit of these interactions are exemplified by the Downtown Rochester BID Survey (which remained open for only one month after the Draft District Plan was released). There are no options for opposition—only the ratification and prioritization of programs and services that have already been decided on by RDDC. NO BID ROC, a coalition opposed to the BID, reports:
“Public engagement and feedback overseen by the RDDC has been far from genuine. RDDC members and BID affiliates filled feedback sessions and ‘Walkshop’ events. Board members routinely swayed discussions and mentioned pro-BID talking points. Consultants recorded them as general feedback. The RDDC filled their sessions with leading questions. As concerns about the BID grew, the RDDC canceled and failed to reschedule promised events, effectively silencing and keeping dissenting voices undocumented.”
Speaking at Vision~Future, County Executive Adam Bello encouraged attendance at an upcoming public input session—not to give feedback on whether or not a BID is desirable, but “so you can see all the benefits that the BID can bring.”
The Benefits of BIDs
But what benefits would the BID bring? “You’ve heard how over a thousand of these exist across the U.S.,” said Galin Brooks. “That’s because they work,” she asserted.
Perhaps BIDs are effective for RDDC’s purpose—as a “tool that displaces small businesses and heavily favors property owners.” But the noticeable effects for most Rochestarians will be to raise prices, decrease democratic control of downtown, and exacerbate heavy-handed policing.
BIDs are permitted to raise revenue through a special assessment levied on property owners. These costs will be passed onto residential tenants and small business owners in the form of increased rents. Businesses, in turn, will be forced to increase prices for food and entertainment. Those unable to make ends meet risk replacement by giant retailers and chain stores.
While tenants pay more to remain downtown, they will have limited input on the BID’s decisions. Although the BID’s governance body promises representation by at least two non-owner tenants, one small business owner, and a handful of other community members, a majority of board members must be property owners. There is no guarantee that they even live in the district they govern.
Once in power, these bodies are incredibly difficult to dissolve: “either a majority of property owners must turn against the BID, or there must be a direct decree from the City Council or Mayor.”
Incidentally, the BID would also achieve another purpose for RDDC by guaranteeing its budget. Unlike other not-for-profit organizations, RDDC would never have to fundraise or ask members (mostly large developers) to pay annual dues again.
The focus on investing additional funds downtown, while neglecting more impoverished areas of the City, is described as a form of 21st century redlining by anti-BID activists. Redlining is the practice of closing off minority neighborhoods to investment, while providing preferential loans to white property owners. The BID, by levying an assessment on downtown property owners that is not distributed into poorer areas, is premised on the same principles of racial exclusion.
BIDs also contribute to the “coercive exclusion of marginalized people.” As rising prices make downtown unaffordable for the poor, increased security will ensure it also remains inaccessible. A study from UC Berkeley Law School’s Public Policy Clinic found that BIDs in California “habitually harass the homeless,” referring to them as “homeless exclusion districts.”
Homelessness is targeted using vagrancy laws passed at the insistence of business owners. These laws are harshley enforced through public-private coordination with the police, or using private security to patrol downtown. Such private security is empowered to function in ways typically reserved for state actors, i.e., controlling public space.
Given Rochester’s history of doubling-down on policing, one cannot doubt that these inequitable security aspects would be a major component of the BID. “It starts with safety,” said Malik Evans at Vision~Future, while Executive Bello’s presentation touted his excessive investments in policing. The groundwork for increased surveillance and criminal enforcement downtown can be seen with Evan’s failed attempt to conflate opioid settlement funding for people in need with RDDC’s concierge service known as the “ambassador program.”
Vision~Future’s sales pitch for the BID is littered with vacuous phrases. Echoing the guiding principles of RDDC’s Draft District Plan, Bello spoke of “vibrant, thriving neighborhoods,” while Evans called for a “safe, equitable, and prosperous Rochester.”
These terms contain vastly different interpretations. For Bello, “vibrancy” does not describe a vision of integrated communities, but of marketable spectacle. Mayor Evans’ references to “safety” speak of militarized police forces rather than protective social welfare.
“We must move from a ‘poverty mindset’ to a ‘prosperity mindset’ in our City,” Evans proclaimed. Following the tenants of the pseudoscientific law of attraction, Evans believes we will manifest our desires merely by thinking of them. Perhaps if we ignore those in poverty, they will simply disappear.
Instead, we must focus on the visionaries, believers, investors and innovators:
“Innovators who look at a problem and see a solution. The visionaries who embrace their imagination and dare to hope. … Investors with the resources to make innovation possible … [and] believers with enough imagination to provide opportunity and turn hope into reality.”
Evans has an incredible talent for discovering provocative ways to say nothing. Yet we can count on the “divine serendipity that happens when visionaries and believers come together. When hope and opportunity collide.” Once again, Evans is reaching for God and scripture like laments to deliver for the upper class.
This vision demonstrates a disinterest in meaningfully addressing segregation and poverty. It is merely a retreading of the failed policy of trickle-down economics. The result is always the same—the rising tide lifts only a few yachts, not all boats. RDDC’s Draft District Plan provides no details for addressing poverty in downtown Rochester, and the section on “Social Services Supplement” is noticeably its shortest.
Who is “We”?
Despite these blind spots, Evans claims “we’re bringing people from all walks of life, from every economic spectrum, together.” A “downtown for everybody.” Likewise, Galin Brooks spoke of “a future for Downtown Rochester we can all embrace.”
But who is the “we” being described?
Clearly, “we” is not those unable to afford inflated costs for apartments, retail space, and events. When speaking of stakeholders, RDDC is referring to those present at Vision~Future who can expect to profit from the BID. Rochester’s impoverished residents, rather than a target for their own revitalization, are viewed primarily as a pliant workforce for outside investors.
Greater attention is focused on students attending the area’s universities and colleges. “When they graduate,” says Bello, “we want them to know our community, not just their campus. We want Rochester and Monroe County to not just be a stop on their journey, but a place to call home and raise their families.” As impoverished Rochester and Monroe County residents are denied basic social services, graduates are offered lump-sum payments to live and work in Monroe County.
Mayor Evans may speak of “visionaries in every neighborhood with a vision to change the world,” but it is clear that only certain visions are valued. Ultimately, RDDC views downtown as a play place for the rich. Somewhere “where people will continue to flock for shows and other entertainment,” in Bello’s words. Similarly, Evans speaks of “a Rochester that values a quality of life.” However, it is clear that quality of life under the direction of RDDC is restricted to upscale restaurants, shows, and high-end apartments, rather than guaranteed food and housing, reliable healthcare, and robust education.
“Nothing Goes Quietly in Rochester”
Trickle-down economics is the theory that increasing the wealth of those at the top of the class hierarchy will lift the economic fortunes of those at its bottom levels. But its implementation has only led to growing wealth inequality and stagnating wages. By steering funds into the hands of wealthy property owners who will reinvest them only for their benefit, a BID in Rochester will create the same results.
Mayor Evans speaks of “bringing people of every economic spectrum together.” But they cannot enjoy his gentrified fantasy of downtown Rochester collectively, since many will be priced-out, and others shuffled away by police and private security. The only “bringing people of every economic spectrum together” will be to provide an exploitable working class fully available for the needs of Mayor Evans’ rich friends and campaign donors.
Referring to the property owners, developers, and investors in the room, Joe Rizzo described a “unified front.” It is clear that the capitalists have organized as a class to maximize their control over downtown, and are coalescing to ensure the BID is implemented according to their careful watch.
But as Joel Frater, Past Chair of RDDC, said at Vision~Future: “nothing goes quietly in Rochester.” The NO BID ROC campaign—supported by a coalition including the NY Working Families Party, City-Wide Tenant Union of Rochester, Rochester Democratic Socialists of America, VOCAL-NY, and others—promises that neither will the implementation of the BID. By organizing a coalition that can confront the owner class, we can construct a Rochester that truly works for the benefit of all, rather than lining the pockets of property owners.
Calls for public housing, accessible healthcare, and robust education are so often depicted as out of reach. The American Dream is dead, but the dreams of the rich are always achievable. Mayor Evans pushed back on suggestions that his vision is “pie in the sky.” While “we have our eyes on the stars,” he said, “our feet are planted firmly on the ground.”
Evans spoke of believers “looking for something to hope for. A vision they can share and be a part of.” But those that cannot afford to invest in his vision will participate only as providers of labor and as consumers.
Instead of the limited, profit-driven vision offered by a BID, we must imagine a Rochester focused on meeting the needs of its community. We must imagine a downtown under the control of its residents, not property owners. We must imagine a community tied together by meaningful social connection, rather than economic relations. This vision is a more desirable, and in many ways more achievable, future for Rochester.