Affordable Housing, Preservation Dominate Discussion at Chinatown Town Hall

The world’s most famous community organizer, Barack Obama, said it just last week: Democracy is sometimes messy.  Even he might have been intrigued by the scene on Baxter Street last night.  Close to 200 residents huddled around long tables in P.S. 130’s harshly lit cafeteria , conversing in five languages (including 3 dialects of Chinese), debating the future of Manhattan’s Chinatown. They came for a town hall meeting sponsored by the Chinatown Working Group, a coalition of more than 40 organizations developing a comprehensive plan for the neighborhood.  Not surprisingly, the evening had its messy moments. But in contrast with previous neighborhood battles, this one was fairly tame and collegial.

The point of last night’s forum was to gather community input about the preliminary action plans the Chinatown Working Group has developed during many months of deliberations. These documents will form the basis for what’s known as a 197A plan, a comprehensive community based blueprint that will be presented to the city for approval in the spring. It successful, it would trigger a large-scale rezoning of the neighborhood, preserve and create affordable housing, protect historically significant buildings, provide for parks and other public spaces, establish new cultural institutions and promote economic development.

From the beginning, the CWG has emphasized collaboration and inclusiveness – and urged active participation from any individual or organization interested in joining the conversation. Community Boards 1, 2 and 3 are all represented.  But for almost as long, they have been dogged by charges that real estate developers and other business interests have too much influence in the process. Last night, co-chair Jim Solomon addressed this perception, saying “only one member of the Chinatown Working Group is a developer.”

CWG Co-chair Jim Solomon talks with Josephine Lee of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the LES, as town hall participants and reporters look on.

Early in the evening, Solomon found himself in a tense back-and-forth with some of the Chinatown Working Group’s harshest critics. Most participants – having broken up into small discussion groups – may not have even noticed the exchange taking place near the auditorium’s entryway. With several reporters looking on, Josephine Lee of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown/LES and Solomon faced off.  Calling the Chinatown Working Group discriminatory, she complained that too many key decision-makers are neither Chinese nor Latino.

The coalition, which includes organizations such as the Chinese Staff & Workers Association and the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, was dismayed when the Lower East Side rezoning completed two years ago excluded a large swathe of  the East River waterfront, home to a large number of low income residents. In the CWG’s rezoning plan, they see an opportunity to accomplish what they feel was denied them in the past. Lee said, “the Lower East Side and Chinatown are one community. We do not want to be divided.”  Given the fact that the neighborhood is 44-percent Chinese and 28-percent Latino, Lee told Solomon, “I’d like you to consider proportional representation (in the Chinatown Working Group). Otherwise it’s of no use to us.”

Solomon said. “I hear your concerns… We are willing, and have been willing, to sit down with you at any time.” In the end, they agreed to schedule a meeting, and Coalition members ended up staying through the town hall. At the end of the evening, they stood before the whole group, making their case for more affordable housing, added protection for struggling small businesses and to place limits on the development of luxury highrises.

Throughout the evening, Solomon circled the room, listening in as the discussion groups debated their top priorities. During a lull, he chatted with me about what’s been accomplished so far, and about the challenges ahead.  He pointed out that many of the issues important to the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side are embodied in the CWG’s guiding principles and draft working plans.  He suggested the only way to have an impact on the ultimate outcome is to be involved in the ongoing discussions.

He said no one has shut the door on the idea of expansive rezoning boundaries encompassing sections of the LES, as well as the historic heart of Chinatown. While he did not say it, other participants, have expressed concerns that the city might very well reject a plan that called for rezoning multiple neighborhoods.

The issue of boundaries has been so explosive that the Chinatown Working Group has avoided addressing it during the past year. They had planned to have, at least, a preliminary conversation about it last night – but, in the end, that didn’t happen. Solomon knows it’s a debate that can’t be put off indefinitely. But he was heartened that even those who’ve been reluctant to get involved in the past, came in out of the cold – at least for one day.  He called it a “great night for Chinatown.”

You can read the Chinatown Working Group’s preliminary plans and check out the future meeting schedule by visiting their web site.