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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, July 26, 2002

Chamber proposes new 'Business Improvement District' Chamber proposes new 'Business Improvement District' (July 26, 2002)

Stores, businesses would be assessed to enable coordination of promotion, design of commercial area

by Jay Thorwaldson

A special assessment district designed to create a "shopping-center environment" in downtown Palo Alto will be proposed to the city next week by a group of merchants and businesspeople.

Every business within the "Business Improvement District" boundaries would be assessed an annual fee of between $150 and $500 in order to raise an operating budget of about $200,000, according to Cornelia Pendleton, a member of the Chamber of Commerce committee proposing the new district.

"This is a way for us to become organized to promote downtown" as a place to visit and shop, she said. Funds could be used to develop a cohesive signage and directory system and do special events. The budget would be enough to hire one staff member, and the district would be administered through the city -- with no connection with the Chamber.

One problem, Pendleton said, is that no one is precisely sure how many businesses there are in downtown Palo Alto -- the city has no business-license tax and thus has no record of active businesses. She said a best guess is that there are more than 800 businesses in the affected area.

Details of the plan are to be announced at a meeting Wednesday morning of the Business Improvement District Committee of the Downtown Marketing Committee, chaired by Stephanie Wansek, general manager of the Cardinal Hotel.

A letter is to be sent out to businesses next week. Additional meetings to explain the plan to downtown businesses are being scheduled for Aug. 21, Aug. 28 and Sept. 18. The proposal would be presented officially to the City Council in October, Pendleton said.

The district would cover all businesses -- not just retail merchants and restaurants -- but also financial-management companies, law firms and others.

The 10-member committee has been quietly looking into the creation of the district for more than a year. The Chamber board voted to support the concept in November, and committee members have been meeting with business owners and managers to assess support.

A 51 percent level of opposition from businesses in the proposed district -- as in any special assessment district -- would defeat the proposal.

"The majority of businesses contacted so far have been very positive," Pendleton said, adding that most see benefits that would outweigh the costs.

It would be the second special assessment district covering the downtown area -- after the Downtown Parking Assessment District created decades ago to finance parking garages. The districts would overlap, but there would be significant variations in the boundary lines, including a loop to encompass Whole Foods Market.

The Downtown Marketing Committee of the Chamber was created more than a decade ago to coordinate promotional efforts for downtown retail businesses and restaurants. But without a regular source of funds, members had to solicit donations from businesses for each event or project -- a time-consuming and often frustrating job, Pendleton said. Jay Thorwaldson is editor of the Weekly. He can be e-mailed at


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