A business improvement district is in the works for Oakland Chinatown – The Oaklandside

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The Oakland City Council will decide tomorrow whether or not to allow Chinatown property owners and businesses to band together and form a business improvement district. Founded in the 1850’s, Oakland Chinatown is considered one of the oldest Chinatowns in the U.S. However, lifelong residents and business owners fear the neighborhood’s sense of cohesion and safety is at risk due to the pandemic, gentrification, and crime. Organizations such as the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce believe they can preserve the neighborhood through a business improvement district. 

Business improvement districts, also sometimes called community benefit districts, are public-private partnerships that raise money through special assessments on buildings and land, and use this revenue to fund services like litter cleanup, graffiti abatement, homelessness outreach, and security patrols. In June, Roughly more than a thousand physical ballots were distributed to property owners in Chinatown to hold a vote on whether or not to form the district. The City Council will count the ballots at their meeting tomorrow and if a majority of property owners are in favor of the district the council could move ahead and allow its formation. 

If approved, a non-profit corporation will be created to manage the district’s revenue. A board of directors made up of property owners, local business owners, and others will run the district. 

City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas, who represents Chinatown, told The Oaklandside she is in full support of the BID’s creation. “I think the community benefits district would be a mechanism that continues to ensure we have a vibrant Chinatown,” Bas said, “and I am looking forward to this coming to council on the 20th.”

Oakland has allowed property owners to formally band together as a business improvement district since 1999. Since then, ten districts have been created across the city; Chinatown would be the 11th. 

The Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce led the effort to create the new district, though Chan said his group has historically opposed the idea because his group felt that the city should have already been providing better services. Chan said the reversal comes after a recent survey indicated that Chinatown property owners want better safety measures in the neighborhood, especially after high-profile attacks on Chinatown’s residents during the pandemic.

“It seems to us that right now public safety is the number one concern,” said Chan in an interview. “The whole notion of public safety is also about prevention.” 

Chan said he hopes the new business improvement district will accomplish this by employing street ambassadors who can watch over shoppers, residents, and store owners, and help people navigate the neighborhood. Other districts such as the Telegraph-Temescal Business Improvement District utilize ambassadors for business canvassing, and litter clean-up. 

The intersection of 8th Street & Webster Street in Chinatown, Oakland. Amir Aziz

Chan said his group’s decision was also due to the city’s massive budget deficit this past year. Though Oakland did receive millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funding, Chinatown was affected briefly by cuts to city services, including police walking patrols. 

“With the decline in services from the city, we found that other districts with BIDs are doing much better in terms of cleanliness, graffiti removal, and handling  public safety issues,” said Chan. 

When the pandemic began, Chinatown experienced a loss of foot traffic that many felt was linked to xenophobic fears of contracting COVID-19. The neighborhood has long struggled to attract customers from other parts of Oakland and supporters hope the new business improvement district can bolster the local economy. 

Not everyone is supportive of creating a business improvement district though. BIDs have been criticized in the past as organizations that actively foster gentrification and displacement of vulnerable groups such as unsheltered persons. The Downtown Oakland Association, which runs a business district covering most of downtown Oakland, was criticized by homeless advocacy groups in 2019 for turning a street into a plaza, with the goal of reducing the number of homeless people hanging out there.

Bas said she thinks the Chinatown business district could actually be a source of assistance for low-income residents and small businesses. “I think it’s important to recognize that across Oakland and certainly in Chinatown, a lot of standing residents have already been pushed out and that’s a huge problem,” Bas said. “The CBD can help to stabilize the community and bolster the identity of Chinatown as a place to visit.” 

Still, some of Chinatown’s elderly property owners have expressed concerns. In addition to commercial property owners, people who own single family homes, apartment buildings, and condos will also have to pay an annual assessment. The amount each property owner pays varies depending on the size of the property, from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. The city of Oakland will also have to pay an annual assessment on land and buildings it owns in Chinatown, totaling about $104,781.38 for the first year, according to a consultant’s plan the city is using to set up the district. 

9th and Webster intersection, Chinatown, Oakland. Amir Aziz

Some are worried about having to pay more money on top of their living expenses and Homeowner Association fees. “We’re trying to find exemptions for homeowners, especially seniors, experiencing financial burden,” Chan said. 

One condo owner, who asked not to be named, said although a lot of people are afraid to go out at night now because of safety concerns, they aren’t sure if the CBD funds will be put to good use. “I don’t know if the CBD can really make some changes. I don’t want them to collect our money and see it go to waste.” 

The condo owner has lived in Chinatown for several years, but they are no longer sure if they can afford to live there. “The Oakland City Council didn’t do the basic, standard job and now they want all the responsibility to be on us.” 

Chan has heard similar objections from other Chinatown elders through a survey his group conducted earlier this year, as well as through one-on-one conversations. 

“Their income is quite limited, and asking them to pay more towards this CBD fund has been difficult,” Chan said, “But with much less of the budget being provided towards public safety, we feel forming this community benefit district is quite necessary.”