The Gritty Italian Market Wants That Center City Sparkle

The Italian Market is hoping to create its own version of the Center City District. Business owners would pay for extra cleaning, lighting and security.

Photo credit: User Josepha via Flickr

Photo credit: User Josepha via Flickr

Business owners in the Italian Market have been talking about cleaning up the place for years, and now they seem to have landed on a solution.

Earlier this month, City Councilman Mark Squilla introduced a resolution authorizing a hearing on a Business Improvement District for the area surrounding the storied 9th Street market. BIDs, such as the well-known Center City District, levy an extra tax assessment on commercial properties in order to fund services that business owners want. In this case, according to the preliminary plan that was attached to Squilla’s resolution, the 9th Street Area BID would pay for street- and sidewalk-cleaning crews, a parking inventory, marketing, and additional lighting and security cameras.

The boundaries of the proposed Italian Market BID.

The boundaries of the proposed Italian Market BID.

Michelle Gambino, business manager for the South 9th Street Business Association, said local business owners started discussing the creation of a BID back in 2008.

“We just feel that it’s the next natural progression for that shopping district,” she said. “It just works. It works in urban areas and it works in situations like we’re in.”

The South 9th Street Business Association got a grant from the city’s Commerce Department to study a potential BID in 2014. Since then, it’s worked with two consultants on the BID process and held a series of public meetings to discuss the plans. The BID’s proposed operating budget of around $300,000 was set after the steering committee conducted a survey to see what kind of services local property owners were interested in.

The Italian Market has long been known as a gritty, trash-strewn place, and Gambino said cleaning services will be the BID’s main priority.

“It’s definitely going to be a cleaner place,” Gambino said, while noting that a number of approvals are still needed before the BID can be created. “It’ll be more enjoyable for people. That alone will make a great impact. We’re hoping that the look will continue to be Old World, but just upscale.”

Now that the resolution has been introduced, state law requires all property owners within the proposed boundaries to be notified and supplied with the preliminary plan. (The proposed boundaries stretch roughly from Fitzwater to Ellsworth and 8th to 10th, widening by a block on either side at Christian Street and Washington Avenue.) After Council holds a public hearing on the resolution, probably in the fall, property owners will have an opportunity to vote. If more than 51 percent of property owners in the proposed boundaries vote against it, the BID can’t move forward. And according to the terms of an amended state law, signed by Gov. Tom Wolf in May, the BID can also be killed by just one-third of affected property owners, meaning those commercial buildings that would pay the extra assessment.

Squilla, who was briefly involved in discussions about creating a similar improvement district in Washington Square West before that effort fell apart, said he’s not certain there’s enough support for the 9th Street BID, but he is confident that there’s been plenty of outreach. The business association has made contact with virtually every property owner in the affected area, handing out materials in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Khmer, and Vietnamese, according to Donna Ann Harris, a consultant who worked on the planning process. Thomas Gilbertson, another consultant who has worked on improvement districts outside of Philadelphia, said the 9th Street proposal hasn’t yet generated an unexpected level of opposition.

“My personal opinion is I do believe it’s a very good idea,” Squilla told Philly Mag. “I see it as a great opportunity to even mesh maybe the East Passyunk BID that’s down there and connect that all the way up through 9th Street and have a really great commercial corridor there.”

Cleaning services are the big priority, but the BID will also create directional signage for parking areas, which Harris, the consultant, said are “invisible” to anyone who doesn’t live in the neighborhood.

Gambino said the Italian Market doesn’t have a serious crime problem, and she was surprised that security services came up in the association’s survey. But the perception that the Italian Market isn’t safe probably stems from the fact that it’s only active during the daytime, Gambino said. It’s neighbors who might feel uncomfortable there after dark, she said, while visitors are rarely there at all.

The business association has been working to improve the area for years, and in 2014, it got control of the Italian Market’s iconic curb stands. Gambino said the only way the market is going to become a nighttime destination is if more bars and restaurants open up. And the only way that’s going to happen is if it gets cleaner, she said.

“We want to preserve tradition, but we also want to give shoppers a better experience,” Gambino said. “And you need money to do that.”

Follow @jaredbrey on Twitter.

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