The Battle for a Chinatown BID Heats Up
Last week, Chinatown business and political leaders took their campaign for a business improvement district to Community Board 3. In a big show of force, they claimed the neighborhood is rallying behind the proposed BID. But opponents strongly disagreed, vowing to fight the plan every step of the way.
The informal presentation before CB3 was only one step in the long road ahead towards final approval. Next month, BID backers will make more formal pitches before the economic development committees of Community Boards 1, 2 and 3. If the three downtown boards sign off, the City Council, mayor and borough president will be asked to weigh in. While 51% of property owners in the proposed district must agree, the city is reticent about establishing any BID that lacks overwhelming community approval.
City Councilmember Margaret Chin told CB3 members there is, in fact, strong support in Chinatown for an improvement district. In a part of the city that has long been neglected, she said, the BID would allow businesses, property owners and residents to control their own destiny.
According to the Chinatown Partnership, which distributed thousands of surveys to business and property owners, 97% are in favor of a BID. The Partnership was awarded a $5.4 million grant from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. for its “Clean Streets” program in 2006. The expiration of that grant at the end of this year, the partnership argues, is one of the most compelling reasons to start a BID now.
Without a new source of funding, Executive Director Wellington Chen said, Chinatown risks returning to the “dirty, smelly, neglected” conditions of the “not-too-distant” past. Chen noted that the proposed assessment is a relative bargain compared to what most of New York City’s BIDs charge. More than 70% of owners would pay less than $1000/year.
But opponents of the BID proposal said there are many reasons to reject it. For starters, said life-long Chinatown resident and property owner Geoff Lee, it makes no sense to pay for street cleaning services the city should be providing for free. His brother, Jan Lee, alleged the Chinatown Partnership has left “tasks uncompleted… and squandered public funds.’
In a recent letter to the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., attorney Philip Grossman, elaborated. Claiming that only about a third of the grant money awarded to Chinatown’s “Clean Streets” program was actually used for street cleaning and maintenance, he wrote, “we respectfully request that your agency investigate what appears to be a gross waste of… the grant money by the Chinatown Partnership…”
Jan Lee, who leads the Civic Center Residents Coalition, has other problems with the BID plan. He does not believe a new quasi-governmental entity is necessary for street maintenance. As an alternative, he points to Soho, where businesses have partnered with the Association of Community Employment, a non-profit that trains homeless people to clean the neighborhood.
But Lee’s biggest concern is that the BID plan is really a “power grab” in disguise. Noting that business improvement districts tend to carry a lot of weight with city and state office holders and agencies, he told CB3, “paying for political advocacy is wrong.” In past political battles, the Civic Center residents group has demonstrated a knack for generating news headlines and for attracting the attention of local elected officials. Lee has said he’s concerned a BID would drown out other voices and give developers with few ties to the community too much influence.
Recently, opponents of the BID began distributing surveys of their own and circulating petitions. Lee says about 150 businesses (many of them along the central Mott Street shopping corridor) have signed up to oppose the new “tax district.” The Chinatown Partnership says around 550 property owners and businesses responded to its surveys. But Lee said he’s mystified by their claims of overwhelming support. “I don’t see where that support is coming from,” he said.
Last week, Lee introduced me to a number of shopkeepers on Mott and Mulberry Streets who want nothing to do with a Chinatown BID. Shirley Wang of Jade Garden Arts & Crafts (76 Mulberry) said she sweeps her own sidewalk and does not want to pay to have someone else do it. Wang said she did not fill out a ballot. Tom Lee of the Han May Meat Market (69 Mulberry) agreed, saying he has enough overhead as it is and cannot afford a new assessment. Christina Seid of the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory (65 Bayard) said she is skeptical, but not dead set against the BID. On top of concerns about the money, Seid indicated she’s worried about the Chinatown Partnership’s track record in the “Clean Streets” program.
At the same time, other business owners are enthusiastic supporters of the BID plan. Hei Chan of Kam Man Food (200 Canal) is convinced many shoppers (New Yorkers and tourists alike) stay away from the neighborhood because they dislike the grime and grit on the streets. Chan, a member of the BID steering committee, believes a sustained “Clean Streets” program is one key to economic revitalization in a neighborhood still struggling a decade after 9/11.
Some activists suggest there’s a cultural divide in Chinatown when it comes to support for a BID — second generation business owners tending to oppose the idea, while many newer immigrants (perhaps less adept at navigating the city’s bewildering bureaucracy) view the proposed organization more favorably. Jimmy Cheng of the United Fujianese American Association told me most of his members (predominantly new immigrants) want a BID. “We need clean streets. If you have a better idea, tell me, but I have not heard any better ideas,” he said.
While the debate about the BID rages in Chinatown, there is also continued opposition from outside the neighborhood. The Partnership agreed to scale back the proposed boundaries after the Lower East Side BID (which is advocating an expansion of its own) balked. And Little Italy was removed from the map when the merchants’ association there complained.
Further to the west, however, a dispute with Sean Sweeney of the Soho Alliance is not yet resolved. Sweeney told me he remains unhappy about the Chinatown group’s insistence on incorporating some blocks that “clearly are not part of their constituency.” Saying he had not spoken with Wellington Chen since the summer, Sweeney asserted, “he has done a very bad job of reaching out. It makes me question his ability to run a BID.”
No one is particularly surprised by the opposition the BID plan has generated. People in Chinatown have been fighting about the issue for two decades. But this time, the Chinatown Partnership is pulling out all the stops. Rubenstein Associates, the high powered public relations firm, has been hired to help push the proposal through the community boards and city agencies. At last week’s CB3 meeting, Rubenstein executive Pat Smith was working the room.
In his presentation, David Louie of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce said the comments from the BID’s detractors were “insulting and unkind.” In an aside, Smith told me Grossman is way off base when he claims that grant money was misspent. “There was a period of time in which the city (not the Partnership) was paying the contractor directly, and he knows it,” Smith said.
Recently I sat down with Wellington Chen to discuss the campaign for the BID. In the Chinatown Partnership’s office, he showed me two fat black binders filled with surveys from local businesses. Spread out on a large work table were colorful drawings from elementary school students featuring slogans such as, “Help Clean Chinatown,” “It’s Chinatown – Not Littertown!,” and “Please Don’t Litter.”
The bruising battle has taken its toll. Chen told me he was especially dismayed when BID opponents made an issue of his $132,000 annual salary (which he said is drawn from private donations rather than grant money). “I did not work hard all of these years to have my reputation dragged through the mud,” he said.
Chen believes Chinatown is at a crossroads. It has the choice of rallying around a BID, of keeping the streets clean and of protecting the neighborhood for decades to come. Or, he said, the community can remain divided and it can forfeit the chance for self-improvement for many years. “Who in their right mind would try to try this again?,” he asked. He told me opponents of the BID are loud and skilled at the game of media manipulation, but that they represent a tiny constituency.
While at least three-quarters of the BID’s first year budget would be devoted to street maintenance, Chen envisions other projects down the road, including the return of a “Taste of Chinatown,” an event that drew thousands of people to the neighborhood in past years. The existence of the BID, he argued, would make Chinatown eligible for a number of grants that are now off limits. What about Lee’s concern that a BID would dominate the neighborhood and silence its critics? Chen said the argument makes no sense. “No one is stopping anyone from speaking their mind,” he said.
BID supporters have a major advocate in their corner — City Councilmember Margaret Chin. A founding member of Asian Americans for Equality, she was instrumental in the creation of the Chinatown Partnership and “Rebuild Chinatown,” a post-9/11 initiative that made the establishment of a BID one of its highest priorities.
In an interview last week at her office, Chin recalled that cleanliness was the single biggest issue in the Rebuild Chinatown survey. She said the proposed assessment is very low (compared with other NYC BID’s) and that making Chinatown more attractive to visitors is a key to building prosperity in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Chin told me the assessment should not be viewed as a tax since the money goes right back into the community. In the end, she argued, “this is a chance at controlling our own future… self determination is what this is all about.”
Chin will obviously be a key player if and when the BID plan reaches the City Council. But first there are several hurdles to clear at the Community Board level. Here’s the upcoming schedule:
December 7th – Presentation before Community Board 3’s Economic Development Committee
December 9th – Presentation before Community Board 2’s Economic Development Committee
December 15th – Presentation before Community Board 1’s Economic Development Committee
December 16th – Community Boards 1 & 2/final vote
December 21 – Community Board 3/final vote