Proposed 13-cent tax on downtown properties is a no-go—for now

Charlottesville's Downtown Mall. Photo: Jack Looney Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall. Photo: Jack Looney

Plans for a downtown business district funded by a 13-cent tax on properties on and near the Downtown Mall have been put on hold after numerous property owners objected. But proponents of a Community Improvement District (CID), researched and proposed by a committee of Downtown Business Association (DBA) members, hope there’s still a future for their plan to tax themselves.

Main Street Arena and Charlottesville Parking Center owner Mark Brown, who didn’t serve on the committee but has become the CID’s most vocal supporter, detailed the proposal in a presentation to City Council on March 2 before announcing the DBA was holding off on asking for the tax hike. A $428,000 draft budget outlines how the money raised by the tax hike would have been spent: on marketing, extra street cleaning, two additional police hires and a full-time administrator, all overseen by a nonprofit board of property and business owners and residents.

Brown said the four-part approach would be a boon to businesses in the district, which would include properties with Water, Main and Market Street addresses, as well as those on connecting side streets. There’s currently very little regional marketing to promote the Downtown Mall, he pointed out. An administrator could streamline communication between the city and taxpayers.

“Right now, if you want to get a brick repaired on the mall, you have to go through four different agencies to get it done,” said Brown.

The additional money for street cleaning would give mall side streets some much-needed attention, Brown said, and the extra cops are something downtown businesses and property owners almost unanimously support.

“It’s a low-crime area, but it suffers from a high-crime perception,” he said.

Similar improvement districts have been around for decades, and the committee that explored the idea of one here pointed to studies by NYU and the University of Toronto that indicated a 16 to 19 percent rise in property values in such districts in New York and Los Angeles. But the same studies show that the response from those paying the taxes wasn’t universally positive; one showed that more than a quarter of taxpayers were opposed to the districts, even after they saw a 20 percent jump in property values.

And opposition is much more widespread here. Brown said he thinks property owners are divided 50-50, but one vocal opponent, developer Bill Nitchman, said many were unaware of the proposal until recently.

“I’m not in favor of having a group of citizens go in front of City Council and entertain the fact of increasing a select few taxpayers’ taxes,” he said. “If you’d done that across the city, there’d be an uproar.”

Nitchman and many others—among them, said Mark Brown, influential developer Hunter Craig, who did not return calls for comment—think existing resources should be spent more wisely. Nitchman blasted the city’s Downtown Mall Ambassadors program in particular. Why should he have to fork over more money to fund police, he asked, “when our city government spends $90,000 on people driving around in little carts, waiting for people to ask them where Chaps Ice Cream is?” He wants money for more cops and cleaners, but “we’re already paying for that with our taxes,” he said.

Brown called that view shortsighted and unrealistic. “That’s the same strategy that’s been pursued since the mall came into existence in 1976,” he said. “Everyone who’s against this wants to see this stuff, they just want a free ride on this process.”

But Brown and the other CID proponents have backed off all the same—for now. If property owners can secure additional resources from the city without a special tax, Brown said that’s fine by him. He’s not holding his breath, and if they come up short, “there are really no supermen left,” he said. “At that point, it’s time for people to get realistic.”