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Elevation Q&A: Rich Bradley, executive director of the Downtown DC BID

Rich Bradley, the Downtown DC BID's first and so far only executive director

Rich Bradley is wrapping up his stint as the executive director of the Downtown DC Business Improvement District, a position he has held since the nonprofit was first formed in 1997. Bradley came to the job after 13 years as the head of the International Downtown Association, an organization that helps stakeholders connect to create better cities. Bradley, who calls himself a "community organizer at heart," has helped transform downtown D.C. from having a reputation of "dull, dirty and dangerous" to one of "clean, safe and friendly," and more. He took some time out to share his perspective on the District with Elevation DC.

Elevation DC: What has changed in D.C. over the last 20 years?
Bradley: The changes in downtown D.C. reflect changes in the larger city. Washington used to be a one-horse town. It was a federal government enclave. Forty-four percent of people who lived in the city worked for either the federal or the local government. Because of that, the city was entirely dependent on government, stressed out with social needs and without adequate resources.

Now, D.C. has become much more. The process began in the late 1990s, with the resurgence of the private sector, which created jobs and businesses throughout the city. Two things catalyzed change:  one was bringing the Caps and the Wizards back into town by creating what was then the MCI Center; the other was creating the BID to give people a new experience on the streets.  Commercial property values began to rise. Commercial property taxes went from 10 percent to 22 percent of the city's revenue. That has helped turn the city around.

As downtown moved forward, the whole city moved forward in a common trajectory.

As the founding executive director of the Downtown DC BID, what are you most proud of?
Before the BID, Metro service ended at midnight, so you had to be on the train by 11 p.m. There was no downtown nightlife. We worked with Metro for extended weekend hours, and now it runs until 2 a.m. We were able to create the conditions that allowed people to bring businesses and expand institutions downtown, to make downtown more than a large office park.  

What are you leaving undone?
Cities are in constant transformation. Some things that are coming include the renewal of Metro--the Silver Line, escalators, and adding eight-car trains, other public transportation resources like the streetcar, and water system and sewer system updates. We haven't paid attention to water and sewer systems, and we need to.  Also, the redevelopment of Union Station, with the improvement to Amtrak and that area, and the project putting a deck over I-395  is going to be a transformative project.

Other projects include the rebuilding of K Street to make it a grand boulevard, and rethinking Pennsylvania Avenue and making it a grand boulevard. Twenty years ago, Pennsylvania used to be a grand boulevard. There are lots of wonderful things to work on.

Why are you stepping down?
Three years ago, we set up a five-year succession process. Last spring, I suggested we move it up a little because of the impending change in administration. The succession plan allows me to continue to be involved in the city. I'm no longer going to be the executive, but I'm going to continue to be engaged in the affairs of the city. I like the people. I enjoy what I do.

I will probably do a lot of what I'm already doing, with less intensity. My body needs more time. This is a strategic decision that allows me to stay engaged longer. When you're a CEO, you're "on" all the time. You're never away from it. I want to live life more deliberately.

What advice would you give your successor?
Pay attention to the basic work of the BID, like replacing lights and figuring out the best kind of gum-busting machine to buy—the core services that the BID delivers—and do the leadership work. Attend to and manage the details on one end and lead and collaborate on the other. As William Blake said, you have to "be able to see the world in a grain of sand."

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Read more articles by Allyson Jacob.

Allyson Jacob is a writer originally hailing from Cincinnati, Ohio, and is the Innovation and Job News editor for Elevation DC. Her work has been featured in The Cincinnati Enquirer and Cincinnati CityBeat. Have a tip about a small business or start-up making waves inside the Beltway? Tell her here.
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