Getting the Low-Down on Business Improvement Districts: A Q&A with BID Watchdog Adrian Riskin

Downtown Los Angeles is seeing something of a Renaissance these days. From the revived Clifton’s Cafeteria to the reopened Angels Flight Railway, it seems you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting some throwback to the Raymond Chandler era. At present, a plan to return streetcars to the historic core is receiving serious consideration by city council. Other projects, like The Grand, a 39-story stack of Ikea boxes designed by Frank Gehry, have evoked more mixed reactions from the general public.

These projects all have one thing in common; they were made possible by business improvement districts, or BIDS, quasi-governmental bodies of business and property owners formed to direct funds towards projects which make the area more hospitable to business. They derive their funds from increased taxes on commercial and sometimes residential property. BIDs typically provide services that many citizens ask the local government for, like landscaping and street cleaning, but oftentimes their reach exceeds their democratic grasp. This is most clear when it comes to the private security hired to patrol BID zones.

You’ve seen them on their patrols, in Hollywood and Downtown, and as far out as Chatsworth. They wear brightly colored t-shirts – red, purple, blue, or green. In the past decade BID security officers have become a familiar presence in the city’s most prominent commercial districts. But the technicolor uniforms hide a darker side – some have been observed harassing Angelenos who live on the streets. In Hollywood, they don police-like uniforms to give the impression they are regular law enforcement.

Adrian Riskin has been tracking BIDs in Los Angeles for five years. Using information acquired through the Public Records Act, Riskin has exposed BID abuses on his website (named for the anti-corruption crusader of German literature) and pressured city government to hold them accountable. I spoke to Adrian last month to find out more about BIDs and how they operate.

The transcript has been condensed and edited.

How did you become interested in BIDs?

In 2014 I was living in Hollywood and I saw guys in sunglasses and green t-shirts screaming at a homeless man who was muttering back at them. I stopped and filmed them, and they ended up making a false police report about him to the LAPD, so I got upset and interested.

I saw from their t-shirts they worked for the Hollywood Media District BID, so I tried to find out what that was on the Internet so I could complain about them to someone. I finally tracked down their supervisor and they would not take my complaint, because he said I did not own property in his district, which I didn’t understand at all. I thought it had something to do with neighborhood councils because I just didn’t understand. So, I started looking into them and that’s how it started.

Is this empowerment of private security a new thing in Los Angeles?

Well that’s what it turned out to be. I mean, I didn’t know it at the time, and also I thought they were talking directly to the LAPD but they were talking to their dispatcher who could talk to the LAPD. But it’s still empowerment of private security because, for instance, I don’t have a direct line to the LAPD. You know, I can call their private number and try to convince someone to pay attention to me. But that particular interaction seemed strange because of that direct line.

Map of business improvement districts in Los Angeles. Image courtesy of the Los Angeles City Clerk website

You’ve been described as a “watchdog,” would you accept that term?

Yeah, certainly, I think it’s really important to pay close attention to BIDs because nobody really does. The newspaper doesn’t, activists for the most part don’t, with the exception of LA-CAN who understands the dangers involved with BIDs, so I try to go to as many of their meetings as I can. I read their emails through the Public Records Act and basically, I try to turn them in to authorities when they do something wrong.

What would you say is a typical day in the life of a BID watchdog?

Reading endless numbers of incredibly stupid emails written by stupid, entitled people who the city will listen to their every whim because they somehow represent campaign contributors. But yeah, just sorting through hundreds and hundreds of emails.

So, who are some of these stupid entitled people who we should know about?

Two of the most powerful figures are Estela Lopez, who is the executive director of the Downtown Industrial District BID, which is right in Skid Row, and formerly Kerry Morrison, who was the executive director of the Hollywood Entertainment District BID until this month. She’s left and I don’t know exactly what’s happening over there right now. That BID is so centrally placed, in a position to interact with homeless people in Hollywood, that whoever runs it has power.

Source: Skid Row History Museum & Archive via LA Magazine

Your blog also features artwork, satirical pieces aimed at BID and city government power players. One of your pieces features Estela Lopez as the queen from Snow White. Why do you describe her as “The Evil Queen of Skid Row”?

You gotta understand, that every Business Improvement District has a super close relationship with their council district and with other offices in the city, other departments. Because Skid Row represents this incredible supply of undeveloped real estate right in Downtown Los Angeles, and it’s the focus of these endless battles on either side, but CD-14, well, Jose Huizar is kind of neutered right now because of the FBI [Huizar is currently under investigation as part of a wide-ranging corruption probe. Though still in office, he has been removed from all committee assignments. The scandal has even spawned its own bus tour], but until that happened, CD-14 was like, the epicenter of this kind of war for real estate, and [Lopez] has the ear of everyone who wants to help it get developed. She has an immense amount of power as part of what happens to that property, and she is clearly opposed to any kind of rights for homeless people, and anything that would impede development. So that’s why.

How do BID security officers harass people?

They focus a lot on homeless people. Let me talk about Hollywood along the Walk of Fame because there is a case where I know what’s going on quite well. Part of their mission is to get homeless people not to sit on the sidewalk because it’s against the law in the City of Los Angeles to sit on the sidewalk. So, they’ll try to get homeless people to move, come walk by them, take their picture, talk to them all the time, convince them to get up under the threat of arrest. They won’t bother non-homeless people doing approved activities. So, at the farmers market you can sit on the sidewalk and eat food and whatever and not be hassled by BID security because the farmers market’s okay. Unless you’re homeless and maybe acting a little weird [then] they will kick you out of the farmers market. I’ve seen them interact with non-homeless people when it’s expedient for them. For instance, in parks in Hollywood they’ll ask non-homeless people to move along if they’re violating some kind of rule that they use to ask homeless people to move along. But I know from reading their reports that they’re doing it so they can’t be criticized and they’re not serious about it and they won’t be as relentless as they’re being with homeless people.

How do they target street vendors?

Well they can’t anymore, because as of January 1st, street vending is not illegal anywhere in California. But for years they were opposed to street vending. They talk about how it’s unsanitary, which it’s not. They talk about how street vendors block the sidewalk, which they don’t. They talk about how they take away business from brick-and-mortar business, like somehow they’ve latched onto that phrase “brick and mortar” it drives me crazy [laughs], they don’t understand what distinction is being made there but it doesn’t have anything to do with street vendors. In any case, you’ll hear them say, “why should they get to sell stuff and take away business from brick and mortar businesses who have to pay taxes and follow regulations.” They don’t take away business from anybody. You don’t buy that stuff in a store. It never happens. And I think it drives them crazy because its somehow out of their control. So, when it was illegal, they were famous for, in Hollywood, arresting street vendors, because Hollywood BID security arrests people. But in other places where there’s a lot of street vending and BIDs interacting, like in the Fashion District they were famous for colluding with the LAPD to confiscate their equipment and throw it away, for chasing them out, for just harassing them a lot, for calling the LAPD on them. Street vending, before January 1st, was an activity that the LAPD would not mostly get involved in, just because they do not have the resources, but if there were complaints they would get involved, so BIDs would generate complaints. […] And now as far as I know they’re leaving them alone because there’s no law against it anymore

Are there any specific companies that are profiting off of this private security by BIDs?

There are on two different levels. One is the private security companies that BIDs hire, and there are just a few companies across the city that they hire. And I don’t know what percentage of their business BID money represents, but it’s multiple millions of dollars. Also, BIDs give these businesses a connection to the city government of Los Angeles, so they also profit in that way.

So, just for instance, Andrews International Security is one of these companies. They get paid like, more than $2 million a year by the Hollywood Entertainment District BID, a few hundred thousand a year by the Hollywood Media District BID, but more importantly, they get to meet with Mitch O’Farrell all the time. He thinks of them when the city needs to hire private security. They have some kind of revolving door going on because the Andrews people are working with the BIDs and the city all the time. So, there’s that level, private security companies profit.

How else do they profit?

Also, a lot of real estate developers are involved in BIDs, so you have BIDs where a lot of development is going on. So again in Hollywood, for instance. CIM Group is a famous huge real estate developer that owns a ton of property in Hollywood. They profit by having this kind of lobbying arm that their fellow property owners have to pay for. And BIDs provide this entrée into city government for these kinds of companies. I know this happens downtown, this is huge. Development companies use the BIDs as lobbying groups. And they learn how to form their own BIDs which helps drive up the property value. So like, for instance there’s a BID being formed in West Adams right now, almost entirely by CIM group who’s been buying up properties along Adams Blvd and Western Ave. to develop. As part of that process they’re forming a BID.

Has there been any local resistance in West Adams yet?

Not that I know of. I think I broke the story of this BID being formed. When a BID is starting, they don’t need any community input, so they do it, it’s just communication between the property owners, even, not that many property owners. Just a few property owners and the city. So they don’t notify anybody because they don’t have to. I’ve been writing about it, and nobody from the area has gotten in touch with me. Sometimes there IS community resistance, like in Venice, I don’t know if you follow that story, but in 2016, when they were forming, because Venice Community Housing, run by Becky Dennison, who’s formerly [of] LA-CAN, IS a property owner in Venice, she found out about it early, because they do have to notify the property owners. She organized a massive resistance to the BID, which was ultimately unsuccessful.

What’s the traditional process of how to form a BID?

It can start either from a group of property owners or a representative of property, like a local chamber of commerce. Or it can start with the City of Los Angeles in a council district. So whichever of those three kinds of components there are, what they have to do is organize enough property owners in the district to petition the City of Los Angeles to allow them to start the process. So that’s the very beginning. If it’s a private group that wants to form the BID, then all they have to do is get enough people to sign these petitions. If the city is instigating the process, they force their front property owners that they’ve gathered to do a bunch of polling and stuff of the potential property owners, so the process can be a little different, depending on who the proponents are.

How do BIDs target communities of color?

I found out that the BID was targeting nightclubs in Hollywood that played hip-hop and had mostly minority patrons, because they were terrified of the patrons. So, at that time they were doing these things they called “midnight walks,” from midnight to 3 am. They get the LAPD to escort them up and down Hollywood Blvd, watching the bars all close, and the hip-hop [inaudible] getting suitably terrified by this situation. So, in [a] meeting they were reading emails that they’d gotten from people who’d gone on this midnight walk with them, and this one email, this guy was going on about how he just didn’t like what he had seen when the nightclubs closed because the patrons were predominantly black and brown. This is a quote. And they were mostly poor people. I think he said something like, “from a lower socio-economic stratum,” because that sounds better than saying they were poor people. And like, it was so disapproving and so racist and so horrible, and without any reason, and everybody there seemed to think it was self-evident what it meant. That was really memorable.

Security officers of the Historic Core BID in Downtown LA. The HDLABID, which operates just blocks from Skid Row, was key in bringing the Perla building, a 35-story condominium tower, to the area

Why is the Skid Row Neighborhood Council an important project for unhoused Angelenos?

So neighborhood councils in Los Angeles are these quasi-governmental advisory bodies and they have the power to send letters to city council which city council has to theoretically listen to more seriously than other letters and also when developers build projects in Los Angeles that require variances from the code, which, you know, is every big money project, a lot of the requirements that they have to do is get “neighborhood buy-in” that’s what it’s called, okay? So, neighborhood buy-in means going to community groups. They don’t knock on doors and ask individuals what they think, they go to community groups. So, there are various private neighborhood associations, there are neighborhood councils, and other kinds of groups like that. So, without neighborhood buy-in it’s less likely that the council will support the development project.

So, in Downtown Los Angeles, [there is] one main council, the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, and they are the most pro-development of any neighborhood council in the entire city. They approve everything. The developers go and say, “hey we want to build a 60-story building in this neighborhood next to a bunch of 3-story buildings, and we’re going to tear down all the affordable housing on the block, etc.” and the downtown neighborhood council is like, “yay, we like that. It’s urbanism.” And YIMBY. So it’s like this super cozy relationship. And also, the DTLANC allows BID employees to be board members in business seats rather than resident seats, so not only are they just naturally pro-development, but there are a lot of BID executive directors who are approving projects that are run by people who are also on the board of directors of the BIDS. So, everybody in the development community loves this arrangement. CD-14 loves it because, when they vote in favor of some project that everybody in the city hates, they can say, yeah but they got committee buy-in. Downtown [inaudible] loves it because there’s back-and-forth between those board members and city staff positions. Like, Huizar staffers have come from the BID or come to the neighborhood council.

So, when the Skid Row Neighborhood Council wanted to split off, […] they were faced with the prospect of having to ask people who live in Skid Row, who weren’t going to let Business Improvement District employees sit on their neighborhood council, […] to buy into their development projects, while they were seeking to override the codes that were projecting a lot of the services in Skid Row and a lot of the residential hotels. They’re seeking to override those codes to build big projects, and they knew that they weren’t going to get any approvals. The Skid Row Neighborhood Council would never approve any projects that were going to tear down SRO housing to build luxury housing.

Who opposed the project?

Business Improvement Districts opposed it. Developers opposed it. The City opposed it, although they’re not allowed to oppose it explicitly, they opposed it in practice by breaking the law, breaking their own rules, changing the law in one case to make it fairly certain that it would be defeated. And it was. Due to their efforts.

What were some examples of how the city intervened?

Okay, so the way that the law is written, if you’re going to do a neighborhood council subdivision, you have to have an election, which has to happen within the boundaries of the proposed subdivision, on a single day, for four hours or more. And at that time online voting for NC elections was outlawed by city ordinance, so one thing that they did, is that Jose Huizar pushed through an exemption to that ordinance that bans online voting for NC elections, to allow online voting for the SRNC election only, and also he, in that ordinance overriding that other ordinance he allowed the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment to use pre-registered voters from past elections, which also wasn’t allowed. So that’s one way in which they changed the law to allow something specifically for that case in a way which would tend to have it defeated because they’re going to allow all the people who had ever registered online to vote online in the DTNC to automatically be registered for this one.

Also, they just flat out ignored the requirement that the election be held on one day in the boundaries in person, and they just invented this thing they called “pop-up polls.” They had them all over downtown for many days, outside the boundary of the proposed subdivision. Sometimes they were in entrance-controlled buildings where homeless people could not get in. Sometimes they were in the offices of Business Improvement Districts where nobody would know about them except employees of the BID. So that’s a way in which they actually just broke the law. Flat out violated it.

“Go to BID meetings, film them, read their emails, read their minutes, read their records, and you can understand them – and it’s your right to do so”

YIMBY-ism, the idea that development is the answer to the housing crisis in Los Angeles, has been gaining a lot of ground. Do you agree with this solution?

Their publicly pounded theory is that trickle-down economics works in housing. And the way that plays out in Los Angeles is – and it’s a biased short summary of their opinions, but basically if you build 60-story luxury condo towers downtown eventually there will be cheap housing for poor people because all the people who are currently living in it will move downtown, and then the vacancy rate will make their previous homes cheaper.

I don’t know enough about economics to agree or disagree, but I do know that the people who are pushing it, that’s not their real motive, and they don’t care whether it’s true or not. Their real motive is to make themselves look good when they’re supporting every possible luxury development downtown that’s taking away actual affordable housing. So whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter to me, because they’re lying, so I don’t think I need to understand the ultimate long-term effects in order to oppose them.

You’ve spoken previously about how BIDs have transformed public art around the city, particularly in historically Latino communities. Can you tell me more about how the BIDs target murals?

One [way] is actual mural erasure and this I know about in Highland Park, where there is a BID along Figueroa Street. The membership of BIDs is predominantly white because of the racial restrictions on commercial property which no one ever talks about but were huge in Los Angeles [note: you can read more about the history of racial prohibitions on property ownership in Los Angeles here]. So, you got a lot of white people running BIDs in neighborhoods where the racial composition of the people who live there can be all kinds of things.

So, Highland Park right now is predominantly Latino, although its gentrifying super quickly. BIDs are in favor of gentrification because people who run them own property, and gentrification drives up the rents that commercial property owners can charge. So, they have tons of Latino murals in Highland Park. And the BID got with the city in 2016, 2017 and got permission to paint over two murals, for no reason that anybody can actually discern, but I think that the reason is that painting over Latino murals and allowing the property owners to paint non-Latino murals makes the people who go to the new bars along Figueroa more comfortable, with art that’s like the art of their people as opposed to the art of the people who were living there before. And so yeah, that BID has been explicitly involved in just painting over murals painted by people who lived there before the BIDs showed up.

And what about the new art that goes up?

So, all over the City of Los Angeles are these signal switching boxes. They switch the traffic signals on and off. And the LA Department of Transportation owns them, and neighborhood groups and people are allowed to paint things on them. LA-DOT has these minimal rules about what can go on there. Basically, they can’t be overtly offensive to racial groups or gender. But in areas where there are Business Improvement Districts, the council districts have given control over those boxes basically to BIDs. So other kinds of community groups don’t have access to them within BIDs. This is an informal but unbreakable arrangement. Some of the BIDs, they work with community art groups. Do Art is one. In some cases that I’m aware of, the BID has held contests to hire a single artist to paint all the boxes in their district. And in Hollywood, which also used to be pretty heavily Latino though it’s been gentrified earlier than a lot of neighborhoods that we’ve been talking about, they held a contest, and part of the rules of the contest were you couldn’t have any “graffiti-style art.” And these rules were used in BIDs in Larchmont Village, Downtown, and South Park, and most of the Hollywood BIDs, and no one in the city seems to care that if you have that restriction, you’re excluding a bunch of mostly Latino artists from even competing in the contest. And the art that’s chosen tends to support kind of tenant, real estate heavy themes, like in Hollywood it’s music, because that’s a thing they’ve been using to sell those apartments they’ve been building, that it’s creative. “Look, we have musicians on the signal boxes.” In Larchmont it’s pictures of incredibly cute Larchmont stuff.

Have you ever seen a BID project you had to admit was at least a little bit good?

Well no, look. Because…No. I don’t care what the effects of their projects are, I mean, otherwise I suppose the fact that they trim trees would be good, because trees need to be trimmed. In a democracy, in a free society, the ends never justify the means, okay? The means are important, the process that we do things by is important. That’s why the constitution guarantees due process, that’s the process that’s due to the project. So, when a city forms a BID in order to privatize the functions of the city and take away input, take away political access to those decisions, I don’t care what they do. They could be bringing the kingdom of God to Los Angeles, I would be opposed because I didn’t get to vote on it. Even if I would vote yes, I want to be able to vote, and everybody should be able to vote.

This is one of the huge problems with gentrification. […] They take away power from people who live in an area to shape their environment, and hand it over to the people who own property in there. Like, as if those people are way more important than the people who actually live there and make the culture of that place, so that makes me opposed to this… project of not treating people equally in a given neighborhood based on the fact that they’re all people in that neighborhood. So yeah, if they bring a BID into some neighborhood and the BID does everything great, I don’t care, because I want the people in that neighborhood to have equal power in decisions that are made in that neighborhood. So that’s the long answer. The short answer is no.

So, let’s say a BID has formed in your neighborhood. Is there anything you can do to challenge it?

Yeah, I think in California we have a unique opportunity to oppose BIDs, to understand BIDs, to pressure the city to control BIDs, and that is because in California, maybe uniquely among states, but certainly rarely, BIDs are subject to government transparency laws. That is the Brown Act, which gives people the right to attend every BID meeting, to film every BID meeting, to be involved by commenting at BID meetings, and the Public Records Act, which gives everybody constitutional right of access to BID records, documents, emails, whatever. So, if anybody who’s hearing this, reading about this, wants to oppose BIDs or even just to understand BIDs, I encourage everybody to exercise these rights. Go to BID meetings, film them, read their emails, read their minutes, read their records, and you can understand them, and it’s your right to do so ●