City, Community Leaders Begin Chinatown Rezoning Talks (Updated)

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Years after an unprecedented neighborhood preservation effort got underway, city planning officials, Community Board 3 and local elected officials have finally begun talks about a rezoning of Chinatown. This morning we’re taking a look at several recent developments related to the Chinatown Working Group, an organization formed in 2008 to come up with a master plan for the rapidly changing community.

The proposal is meant to curtail over-development, protect Chinatown’s historic buildings, preserve and create affordable housing and accomplish other community goals. The initiative has gained more urgency in the last year or so as several large development projects along the East River touched off new worries about gentrification.

Carl Weisbrod, director of City Planning, and key members of his team, met with local leaders during the last week of June. Back in February of 2015, the agency rejected the full Chinatown Working Group plan, calling it too expansive. Weisbrod agreed to open a dialogue after Community Board 3 followed up earlier this summer with a more targeted proposal.

Gigi Li, former chair of CB3, recently briefed members of the board’s land use committee about the meeting. It was attended by representatives of the community board, as well as Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council member Margaret Chin.

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The Chinatown Working Group zoning plan divides the neighborhood into several sub-districts.

In its letter to City Planning officials, CB3 called for “prioritizing” three sub-districts (A, B and D) of the Chinatown Working Group plan. These areas included the “Chinatown core,” the waterfront and properties controlled by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). In Weisbrod’s response, he emphasized the city’s determination to stay focused on Chinatown.

The big question: how will the city draw the borders of Chinatown? According to Li, the Department of City Planning does not, “feel tied to the boundaries of Chinatown as defined in the Chinatown Working Group report.” The planning officials, she said, acknowledged the CWG’s work over many years in coming up with its recommendations, but views the organization’s report as “one report amongst a body of work” in the past couple of decades. Weisbrod and company suggested a partnership with CB3 to begin a “much larger community engagement process” around neighborhood rezoning.

Li also said that city officials believe the three sub-districts are on “separate tracks,” and should not be considered together as one plan. They appear to see the most promise in sub-district A, the historic heart of Chinatown, where they believe the “architectural context” of the neighborhood is strongest. But the department’s first priority, said Li, is responding to local elected officials, who have called for a ULURP in the Two Bridges area. Several mega-towers are planned along the waterfront (sub-district D in the CWG plan). The elected officials believe the relevant parcels should be subject to the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.

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June meeting of Community Board 3.

Even before the initial meeting with city officials, activists within the Chinatown Working Group were pushing back hard against the piecemeal approach. At a community board meeting last month, local residents and members of the CWG demanded a new pledge from CB3 to enact every aspect of their proposal. CWG member Michael Lalan angrily denounced board members, calling them “sell-outs.”

That same night, Gigi Li ended her four-year tenure as leader of Community Board 3 (she’s running for the LES/Chinatown state assembly seat). The new chair, Jamie Rogers, may have different ideas, or at least a different approach, when it comes to the Chinatown Working Group.

At a meeting of the CWG this month, Lalan argued that the show of force made a big impression. “I think it resonated with the newly elected leadership of Community Board 3,” he said. In a get-acquainted session with a few members of the Chinatown Working Group, said Lalan, Rogers, “offered to pass a resolution from Community Board 3 in support of the (CWG) rezoning plan, to maintain it whole, to not pick apart the pieces and prioritize any one piece but to pass it en masse now.”

“So CB3 is going to pass a resolution?,” asked James Rodriguez, an organizer with Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES). CWG member David Tieu, responded, “That is what he’s going to push for as head of CB3.”

June meeting of CB3. Gigi Li (far left) alongside Jamie Rogers.

June meeting of CB3. Gigi Li (far left) alongside Jamie Rogers.

In an interview last week, Rogers discussed his plans for handling the Chinatown Working Group issue when the board reconvenes in the fall. He noted that CB3 has approved measures in support of various sub-districts of the CWG master plan. But since those votes were spread out over an extended period, Rogers said, “I have offered to craft a resolution summarizing what the board has done (in the past).” It would, of course, be up to the 50 members of CB3 whether to vote in favor of the new resolution. Rogers also said he would make a case to the Department of City Planning that representatives of the CWG should have a seat at the table at future meetings with city officials. [A request by the Chinatown Working Group to attend the late June meeting was denied.]

[NOTE: See editor’s note at the end of this article regarding Rogers’ stance on these issues.]

The Chinatown Working Group was created seven years ago following the rezoning of 111 blocks of the Lower East Side. The organization was meant to address strong criticism from local activists, who lambasted Community Board 3 for excluding Chinatown from the rezoning. Some community leaders believe the CWG did its job (crafting its master plan) and should now be disbanded. The community board, they believe, has the responsibility for pushing the proposals through city government.

Some of these same people also question the continued legitimacy of the CWG as a representative body.

At its height, there were more than 50 groups at the table. Many of those organizations have dropped off in the last few years. In the past, the Chinatown Working Group was led by co-chairpersons (one from a community board, one from a community-based organization). One of the co-chairs, Wilson Soo, stepped down in the spring of 2015, after his organization (Two Bridges Neighborhood Council) quit the CWG. The other co-chair, CB2’s Anthony Wong, resigned when his community board ended its membership in the Chinatown Working Group.

Margaret Fung, executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund, has been acting as an interim CWG spokesperson. At the July meeting, she said, “What we’re trying to do is to reconstitute and build back the Chinatown Working Group… I think there was a misunderstanding that the Chinatown Working Group no longer exists.” At the meeting, members talked about the need to invite former groups back to the organization and to, possibly, elect new co-chairs.

Rob Hollander, a non-voting member (known as a “Friend of CWG”) believes the organization continues to have an important role to play. Hollander, the group’s secretary, said the membership of the CWG is once again growing and increasingly diverse. He provided The Lo-Down with a list of 34 member groups, six of which have joined since April of this year.  “It would be a mistake for the city to work with the community board alone,” said Hollander. CB3 is not representative of the Chinatown community, he added. “The Chinatown Working Group needs to be in the room when decisions are made.”

Another point made by Hollander and others is that the CWG is uniquely positioned to apply pressure on the de Blasio administration. Many of the groups involved in the organization have staged a series of protests alongside Extell Development’s 80-story tower on the former Cherry Street Pathmark site. Member Wendy Chung said, “Many of us are planning to continue to organize and to put pressure on the mayor because I think, ultimately, it’s good that CB3 is moving forward with this, but at the same time we still need to organize.”

Editor’s note: Following the publication of this article, we heard from Community Board 3 Chair Jamie Rogers about statements attributed to him regarding the board’s stance on the Chinatown Working Group.  In the story, Rogers was quoted as saying, “I have offered to craft a resolution summarizing what the board has done (in the past).” He asked us to change this statement to read, “I have heard the suggestion to craft a resolution summarizing what the board has done (in the past).” At another point in the article, Rogers indicated that he would press city officials to allow Chinatown Working Group members to attend future meetings with the Department of City Planning. In our followup exchange, Rogers said he would make a case to city officials that representatives of community groups should have a seat at the table.