Tempers Flare at Chinatown Working Group

As summer 2010 draws to a close, new doubts are swirling around an unprecedented community planning initiative in Chinatown.  Hot tempers and an atmosphere of mistrust have consumed the Chinatown Working Group (CWG) in the past week — threatening to derail months of intensive work by more than 50 neighborhood organizations.

As we have reported, eight members of the CWG wrote an “open letter” to Michael Bloomberg April 13th protesting the city’s insistence on controlling the selection of a planning consultant to help prepare a comprehensive community plan.  The co-chairs of the Chinatown Working Group responded with their own statement, refuting many of the claims in the letter and saying the concerns about city interference were “premature.”  Hard feelings from the dispute then spilled over into a Thursday meeting, leading to an angry outburst and a dramatic confrontation among supposedly liked-minded advocates of affordable housing.

Community District 3

The flare-up happened as Victor Papa of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council was outlining a new proposal for housing, rezoning and job creation.  The plan, encompassing all of Community District 3, is focused on adding significantly to the neighborhood’s affordable housing stock.  In an effort to protect Chinatown’s unique character, it calls for the protection of certain key blocks. But, at the same time, the proposal advocates the expanded use of “inclusionary zoning,” which allows developers to put up bigger buildings if they create affordable housing.

Mid-way through the presentation, CWG member Josephine Lee lashed out, slamming a newspaper on the table. In an interview over the weekend, Lee told me she became frustrated and upset because the Two Bridges plan, “runs counter to everything Victor said he would support. It only talks about upzoning and serves only developers – non-profit developers – while providing a few measly units of affordable housing..”

For many downtown activists, the events of the past week are unsurprising.  Lee is one of the leaders of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, an organization that branded the 2008 rezoning of the Lower East Side racist and exclusionary. For many months, the organization refused to join the Chinatown Working Group, which was created in response to  the complaints about Community Board 3’s rezoning plan. In the last few days, Sing Tao, a widely read Chinese language newspaper, has accused the coalition of undermining the CWG. Other neighborhood activists have gone even further, suggesting the group is out to destroy the community planning process.

Lee disputed this notion, saying she “believes in the process.” She said some people are trying to frame the Coalition as obstructionist when in reality she and her colleagues are simply “standing up for the democratic process, for low-income residents who need housing and against developers who aren’t serving the community.”

Lee explained that she had gone into Thursday’s meeting feeling as though the leadership of the Chinatown Working Group was trying to suppress her group’s concerns. As proof, she asserted that at least two prominent Chinatown organizations had been pressured to withdraw from signing on to the Bloomberg letter.

In the past, Papa has urged the Chinatown Working Group to take the Coalition seriously and to keep an open mind about their proposal to re-zone a large swathe of the Lower East Side excluded in 2008.  But on the issue of selecting a planning consultant, he advised the Coalition to back down. Even though the NYC Economic Development Corp. has four votes on the selection committee, while the CWG only has three, he argued the city would not show disregard for the community’s wishes.  Papa, who along with CWG Co-chair Jim Solomon, was elected to serve on the selection panel, said he would fight vigorously for the neighborhood.  But Lee told me she was unconvinced: “How do I know these people are working for the community? How does Jim Solomon represent the community? How does Mr. Papa represent the community?”

Lands End II housing, developed by Two Bridges Neighborhood Council.

Papa, who grew up on the Lower East Side and has deep community roots, did not take kindly to these questions. In a conversation this morning, Papa also said he was offended by Lee’s suggestion that the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council – one of the LES’s largest non-profit developers – was merely protecting its own self interests.

Noting that Two Bridges has created more than 1500 units of low income housing, he said, “when they have a record like ours they can say what they want to say.” Papa added, “it serves no purpose to be at odds with developers. We can’t be playing around. We’re toying around with people’s lives, and if we aren’t careful, they’ll get nothing.”

Other members have risen to the Coalition’s defense. In a statement released this morning Chinatown residents Jan Lee, Danny Chen and Jeannie Chin wrote:

We believe that many tactics are being used to dissuade people from signing onto our letter to the Mayor.  Some of these tactics are certainly not what anyone could mistake for “open” or “transparent”. We ask that despite the noise and fear that might be used to distract from the real issue, we all focus on the question of community control over our planning process.

While acknowledging speaking with Chin about the issue, Co-Chair Jim Solomon told me this afternoon there was no campaign to “dissuade” any organization from signing the letter. In a written statement, he addressed both the specific allegation and the need for a return to ‘civility” in the deliberations:

As the summer temperature has risen, so too have tempers within the CWG.  The conduct by a few at last Thursday’s Culture, Affordability, Preservation and Zoning (CAPZ) Working Team meeting was unsettling to many.  It also was simply unacceptable – and must not continue.  Zoning proposals currently under consideration by CAPZ may be disputable.  But everyone is entitled to share proposals and express opinions without fear of being verbally attacked.  No single member or organization speaks for the entire community, nor owns the truth. For the sake of clarity, while I disagree with the approach and characterizations in the recent open letter to the City, the signatories were well within their right to express their views in this manner (though as co-chair I would’ve much appreciated the courtesy of a heads up beforehand).

So what’s next? On Thursday afternoon the CWG steering committee will meet to discuss the selection of the planning consultant. We’ll be looking to see if there’s room for compromise with the city. And tomorrow afternoon the Coalition plans a news conference to address its zoning proposal:

For the past two years, the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and LES, with the assistance of the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development, has been gathering community input and conducting research to address the increased pressures of gentrification and the threat of mass displacement from the community. The proposed Chinatown/LES Special Rezoning District calls for zoning changes to limit high-rise real estate speculation and exorbitant rent increases; to preserve existing low-income New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and rent-regulated housing; to make rents affordable for small businesses; and require a community review process for all new development on NYCHA property. The proposal also calls for alternatives to the 80/20 and inclusionary housing programs to increase low-income housing in the community.

Meanwhile, CWG members have pledged to reconvene in two weeks to take another crack at resolving their differences over rezoning proposals.  In the past, members have shaken off conflict and returned to the negotiating table. It remains to be seen if that will happen this time.

One final note. At September’s meeting the Chinatown Working Group will elect new co-chairs. Thomas Yu, who currently holds the position, has already indicated he will not continue in the role. Solomon told me he’s undecided about serving another term, if he’s nominated by his peers.