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Business Owners Debate Lawrenceville Neighborhood Tax

The battle lines were quite literally set in Pittsburgh City Council Chamber on Monday as both supporters and opponents of the Lawrenceville Business Improvement District (BID) took seats on opposite sides of the room.

Though there were a few more speakers in favor, most of the public hearing was spent in a back-and-forth discussion of the Lawrenceville Corporation's plan for a BID. A Business Improvement District is a neighborhood fund that assesses a yearly fee on property owners in order to pay for extra public works services within the district.

Lawrenceville Corporation Executive Director Matthew Galluzzo said the BID would provide money for street sweeping, snow plowing, graffiti removal and other such services to spruce up the business corridor. He said the fund would also be a tool to leverage matching grant funds from private investors.

"We've seen palpable interest in supporting this effort from philanthropy, public officials, and corporations," said Galluzzo. "In fact, I hold a letter in my hand from a local foundation that pledges $50,000 for startup costs of the BID and operations, if the BID is ratified by Council."

In order to make it to Council, the BID proposal must receive an affirmative vote from a majority of property owners along the affected corridors of Butler Street and Penn Avenue within Lawrenceville. That includes all of Butler Street between 33rd and 57th Streets, and a few separate sections of Penn Avenue.

John Bauer, owner of Mobile Radio Service, Inc. on Butler Street, said the Lawrenceville Corporation's decision to leave out some blocks of Penn Avenue and exclude all of the business off of the main roads amounts to "picking and choosing" who pays.

"We're stopping at 57th Street. We have a big gap on the thing in Penn Avenue from 40th [Street] down to Doughboy [Square], and there is businesses in those areas [sic]," said Bauer. "Plus, if you're building something to benefit businesses in that area, how is it not benefitting the businesses a block off of Butler Street?"

Unlike most other BIDs, the Lawrenceville Corporation's proposal bases the yearly fee on the size of each property owner's frontage. For example, with a ten dollar per foot fee, a 50-foot storefront would be assessed $500 annually, while a 100-foot storefront would cost the owner twice as much. D'Alessandro Funeral Home co-owner Jean D'Alessandro said she doesn't like that businesses with bigger buildings pay significantly more.

"You're penalizing us for footage of our property," said D'Alessandro. "Why can't we all collectively get together as a group and say, 'This is what [the fee] is, no matter how much you own'?"

The footage-based fee is also a problem for Steven Sabina, owner of Em-Bed-It, Inc. He said his business can't afford to pay $1,400 per year for its 144-foot frontage on Butler Street.

"Our business has been very depressed since 2008," said Sabina. "I've laid off two of my eight employees just to keep our doors open. This would just be an added burden to our already-stretched budget."

However, many property owners said they'd be happy to pay the yearly fee to make the Lawrenceville business corridor more attractive to shoppers. Brian Mendelssohn, principal of Botero Development, said he thinks it's good to keep money made in Lawrenceville within the neighborhood's boundaries.

"I look at other neighborhoods and how they're developing, and while I respect it, they have a lot of outside money coming in," said Mendelssohn. "They have big corporations coming in, they have big-city plans telling them how they should develop their neighborhood, or consultants coming in from Boston, telling them how to develop their neighborhood. That's fine for them; I don't think that's what Lawrenceville's nature is."

The property owners have roughly a month-and-a-half to vote for or against the BID proposal. If it passes that vote, legislation must be approved by Council before the BID can be put in place.

David Feehan, a consultant for the Lawrenceville Corporation, said that of more than 1,000 BID proposals across the country, only about 2% have ever been voted down.

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