Hillcrest skyline (view south toward downtown)
The Hillcrest Business Improvement District has added community planning to its list of responsibilities.
In June 2016, Ben Nicholls, executive director for the Hillcrest Business Association, the nonprofit that manages the local business improvement district, celebrated his role in circumventing Uptown’s planning group and convincing city planners to draft a community plan that doubles the height limits of buildings in areas of Hillcrest, maintains density increases, and deletes a long-standing plan to create a historic district in the heart of Hillcrest.
“I completed a plan that was begun in 2011 to engage with the Uptown plan process that sidestepped the Uptown Planners and proposed a business friendly agenda for the plan,” wrote Nicholls in his June 2016 annual performance review to the association’s board of directors.
Sidestepping the local planning group, says Nicholls, was essential, considering Hillcrest’s inadequate representation on the Uptown Planners, the community planning group that reviews projects for Hillcrest, University Heights, Mission Hills, Banker’s Hill, and Middletown.
“The Uptown Planners, while well intentioned, hasn’t represented Hillcrest well at any time I’ve been involved in Hillcrest,” writes Nicholls in a June 17 email. “Only two years ago, the Uptown Planners had no Hillcrest representation, residential or commercial, at all. The [Hillcrest Business Association] then made the decision to forward our comments and ideas directly to city staff rather than through a group that had no Hillcrest representatives. While the Uptown Planners have a more representative roster at this point, even today I don’t believe that our members’ input would get a fair hearing.”
What makes the move unusual is community-wide planning issues are not typically in the purview of a business improvement district.
Business owners in improvement districts such as Hillcrest’s pay an annual assessment. Proceeds are then directed to a nonprofit corporation that manages the district and disburses the funds for projects that improve the area with the goal of making it better for business. For added revenue, the nonprofit throws special events and administers farmers’ markets.
But the nonprofit associations must adhere to strict guidelines regarding how they use the assessments. The enabling ordinance that governs the Hillcrest Business Association “strictly limits” the districts to the following activities: “advertising and promotion of the area; cleanup and landscaping of public right-of-way; newsletter to [business improvement district] members; holiday decorations and business development in the district.”
So, where does lobbying city planners and working to sidestep local planning groups fit into that?
Nicholls says it doesn’t have to. His salary is paid for by events and fundraising, not with assessments. That leaves him free to lobby whomever he and his board want. In addition, Nicholls says he is only following what his board has asked of his predecessors.“Every board president that has overseen the [Hillcrest Business Association] during my tenure has advocated that we be part of the [community] plan update. I follow this direction.“
The board asked him to intervene in planning issues as a result of what he calls a desire by many Hillcrest residents to “stifle business.”
Nicholls says capping height limits, failing to increase density, and designating much of the business district historic, all items initially written into the draft community plan, smothers future growth.
To stymy their anti-business platform, Nicholls teamed up with the Uptown Gateway Council. The group, as reported by the Reader, included some of Hillcrest’s largest property owners and was represented by land-use lobbyist Marcela Escobar Eck.
In early June, members of the Uptown Planners were shocked to learn that city planners had fallen in line with the Uptown Gateway Council and the Hillcrest Business Association.
Hillcrest resident, business owner, and planning group member Mat Wahlstrom has battled Nicholls for years, accusing him of turning the association into a rogue organization that caters to developers and influential property owners, not the local business people.
“[Nicholls’s] efforts on behalf of absentee landowners and outside developers don’t provide even an indirect benefit to the assessed local businesses. Adding to that, the Hillcrest Business Association, which is funded by tax dollars and as a 501(c)6 is supposed to act only on behalf of all of its members equally, has been working with these outside developers as their agent.”
Michael Wright owned City Deli, formerly located at the corner of University and Sixth avenues, in the heart of the business district. During his years as a business owner and Hillcrest resident, Wright served on numerous boards since the ’80s, including the Hillcrest Business Association. Wright is unhappy with the new enhanced scope of services that Nicholls and the business association have adopted.
“Plain and simple, this is not the business association’s mission,” Wright said in a June phone interview. “They should be working directly with neighborhood businesses, promoting them. They also need to ensure that alleys are clean, trash and graffiti is removed, making it more inviting for residents and visitors. It’s not glamorous work but it’s what the business association is there for and what these local businesses need. The association seems to be avoiding those things. Nicholls has been saying things that have not been supported by the HBA board, and there’s nobody to rein him in at this point.”
Nicholls sees it differently. “The Hillcrest Business Association should absolutely be involved in community planning. It doesn’t matter how many street fairs we hold or promotions we run, if the neighborhood plan is going to stifle business, Hillcrest will continue to stagnate as it has since height limits were forced on the community.”
Nicholls believes new commercial and residential development is key to Hillcrest’s future. And with new developments, he says, come new and improved infrastructure, a new focus on transit, and less need for parking.
“In 2010 we began a process to engage our members to gather their input on what they wanted to see for the plan. It was called Hillcrest 2.0 and involved comments from over 200 business people at five different forums. Our meetings had vastly more input than the Uptown Planners meetings or the city workshops. Our members advocated for Little Italy–style development. My members want the kind of improvements that we’ve seen in that dynamic neighborhood. I have taken this mandate and advocated for it.”