Volume 22, Number 01 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | May 15 - 21, 2009
Downtown Express photo by Josh Rogers
Ellen Baer on her first day as president of the Hudson Square Business Improvement District.
New president of the Square is making the rounds
By Josh Rogers
She doesn’t yet have a staff, a budget, an organizational bank account or even an office, but Ellen Baer started last week as the first president of the Hudson Square Business Improvement District.
Baer took her first meeting in Downtown Express’s Hudson Square office for an interview with editors and reporters Wednesday, the same day the BID’s board approved her hiring.
Baer, 54, was a partner at Hamilton, Rabinovitz and Alschuler, Inc., a large economic development consultant firm which worked on High Line Park and advised the Pier 40 Partnership on its community-backed redevelopment proposal for Pier 40 in Hudson Square.
The BID will concentrate on marketing the neighborhood west of Soho and improving the quality of life, but will not take on other traditional BID duties like street cleaning and security. The district’s $1.7 million budget comes from property owners who pay a fee of about 19 cents per square foot.
The former printing district’s population is less than 1,000, some of whom live in buildings not zoned for residents. In recent years, media companies, architectural firms and others have helped create what Baer calls a “creative vibe.”
“I love the whole feel of it,” she said. “There’s a real vibe in this neighborhood.”
She said distinguishing the area from Soho will come with time. “Hudson Square has its own — or will someday I think have its own known identity too,” she said. “Hudson Square needs to evolve as a place.”
There is no consensus on the neighborhood’s boundaries — some actually deny its existence — but for the acceptors, the rough boundaries are Sixth Ave., Canal St., Houston St. and the Hudson River. Trinity Real Estate, the district’s largest property owner and the BID’s sponsor, tried unsuccessfully to create a BID six years ago. Trinity reduced the business district size this time to exclude more residential areas including the area west of Greenwich St. Community Board 2 opposed the original application, but supported the smaller district last year without any opposition.
Baer is beginning to make the rounds to find out what people need and want.
“My job is to pull together a vision, not create one out of the head of Ellen Baer,” she said. “My first job is to get out talking to people.”
She said pedestrian crossings are not safe and she’s already put the Port Authority on notice that she wants to discuss ways to improve conditions around the Holland Tunnel. She said the city and perhaps the state will also be part of the conversations.
Tobi Bergman, a Square dweller and C.B. 2’s non-voting representative to the BID, agreed traffic is the biggest problem in the neighborhood, particularly since it is mostly drivers who are just trying to pass through to other places.
“It’s kind of a dead zone type of traffic — it gets there and it doesn’t move,” he said in a phone interview.
Streets like Varick, Spring, Broome and Watts need more lanes for neighborhood traffic and fewer for the tunnel, Bergman said, pointing out that the federal government has been funding studies of Canal St. traffic for many years, developing plans which could be implemented quickly.
That’s just the type of job Baer says she can do well.
“I’m about taking plans from paper to implementation,” she said.
Laura Walker, the BID’s chairperson, said Baer’s resume is right for the job. “She has a lot of experience not just in the public and private sector, but also in the intersection of the two which is what a BID is all about,” said Walker, also C.E.O. of WNYC Radio, which moved into the neighborhood last year.
Baer, whose masters thesis was on public-private partnerships, worked for many years in city government, including at the Parks Dept. and the predecessor to the Economic Development Corp., the Public Development Corp.
In 1993, Baer, who was then chief of staff to Dep. Mayor Norman Steisel, was accused of soliciting a job from Lockheed Information Management Services while the firm was bidding on a contract to collect parking fines. Baer, who had withdrawn from the contract decision according to a Daily News article, later left city government and agreed to pay a $5,000 fine in 1995.
Without going into specifics last week, Baer said last she learned from the episode. “It was in the past and like all difficult life experiences, I just try to take the positive out of it and leave the negative behind,” she said.
Baer, a lifelong New Yorker, said her connection to the city grew stronger after 9/11. She married David Lebenstein, a real estate executive, four years ago and she has two grown step-children. The couple lives on the Upper West Side. Baer grew up in Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village, attending P.S. 40 and Friends Seminary Downtown.
For now she’s focused on preparing for July 1, when the BID begins full operations. Her salary is $150,000 and she expects to hire three or four people.
The neighborhood’s building owners hired her and Baer is not too worried about finding an office, saying, “There are lots of good landlords in the district.”