As Upper West Siders enjoy Columbus Avenue this spring — taking in the scent of blooming daffodils while ambling from store to store or soaking up sun while enjoying lunch in an outdoor café — they would do well to reflect for a few moments on the many contributions of Barbara Adler.
After dedicating the last 20 years to the beautification and betterment of this beloved thoroughfare, Adler will soon step down as executive director of the Columbus Avenue Business Improvement District (BID). “It just seems like it’s time,” she said. Under Adler’s leadership, the Columbus Avenue BID has grown from a nascent local coalition to a small but formidable organization that can claim a large measure of credit for the welcoming atmosphere that defines the avenue.
Cleaner, Shadier and More Colorful The BID maintains the 120 tree beds and 22 pedestrian mall planters that line Columbus Avenue between West 67th and West 82nd Streets, providing shade and floral splendor to the throngs that flood the avenue’s sidewalks. It is also responsible for the Doe Fund sanitation teams that regularly patrol the avenue, cleaning up litter and graffiti and painting benches and tree guards.
“The idea is to make Columbus Avenue as green and sustainable and attractive as we possibly can,” Adler said.
This commitment to creating an inviting, well-maintained avenue resulted in the wholesale transformation of the formerly drab block of fence-lined sidewalk between West 76th and West 77th Streets along the O’Shea School Complex schoolyard. The BID’s sustainable streetscape project, designed in collaboration with the Department of Transportation, added new trees, lush plantings, benches, solar-powered lighting and a bioswale water retention system.
These efforts have paid dividends for residents, landlords and merchants alike. When Adler joined the BID as its founding executive director in 1999, Columbus Avenue was in the midst of an extensive street reconstruction project that disrupted pedestrian traffic and retail patterns, leading to vacancies and high turnover among local businesses. “The challenge was bringing Columbus Avenue back to all that it could be,” she said.
A Healthy Retail Community Now, during an era in which empty storefronts have become a central feature of many of Manhattan’s signature shopping districts, Columbus Avenue enjoys a 95 percent occupancy rate within the BID’s territory.
“We have a group of property owners who understand what sells here on Columbus Avenue,” Adler said.
With its distinctive blend of storefronts housed in historic buildings, Columbus Avenue has maintained a cohesive neighborhood feel that makes it a vital resource for locals as well as a shopping destination for visitors drawn by the American Museum of Natural History.
The BID’s Taste of the Upper West Side fund-raiser, now in its 12th year, has become a yearly showcase for the vibrant local dining scene that serves to benefit the neighborhood. “We dedicate every penny from the event back to the community either in the form of projects or donations,” Adler said. With proceeds from Taste of the Upper West Side, she said, the BID purchased Bigbelly trash cans that have helped curb the rat population in Theodore Roosevelt Park, and makes annual contributions to the nonprofit Wellness in the Schools.
Preserving the Best of the Past One of the BID’s latest undertakings has been to formally catalogue Columbus Avenue’s past. The BID is working with a Columbia-educated oral historian who has conducted dozens of hours of interviews with notable local figures, such as former Council Member Ronnie Eldridge and Michael Weinstein, the restaurateur behind longtime neighborhood favorite Museum Café. The collection will be housed for posterity at the New-York Historical Society, and Adler hopes that locals will contribute memorabilia for an eventual exhibit.
“This is probably our most exciting project right now,” Adler said, adding that the interviews are halfway completed. Though she’ll be leaving her post as executive director in the months to come, she plans to stay involved in the oral history project, which holds special significance to her as an Upper West Side native.
So what’s next for Barbara Adler? She’s reapplied to Community Board 7, which she served on for 22 years, and she’ll continue her work on the board of Friends of Roosevelt Park. But she’s also keeping an open mind to new possibilities. “I don’t think of it as retiring,” Adler said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I do know that I’m going to do something.”