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Chinatown Working Group Meets This Afternoon

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Cycling down Mott Street

We last reported on the Chinatown Working Group back in June, after a well-attended town hall meeting in which concerned residents spoke out about a wide range of development, economic and cultural issues. Since that time, the organization, representing many segments of the community, has been working on a set of principles, action plans and strategies for the future of an endangered neighborhood. They'll be meeting today from 4-6pm at American Legion Post 1291, 2nd floor, 191-193 Canal Street.  The members will vote on the principles and make plans for another town hall meeting, to be held February 1st.

The group is coming up with a detailed master plan, addressing many of Chinatown's most vexing problems. Generally speaking, the principles are calibrated to achieve the following:

  • Preserve and create new affordable housing
  • Encourage long-term residency (rather than transience)
  • Bolster struggling small businesses
  • Attract new businesses
  • Make Chinatown safer for pedestrians
  • Create more parking and improve automobile access to Chinatown businesses
  • Promote Chinese culture generally and build a community arts center
  • Preserve the character of Chinatown's architecture
  • Create parks and other public spaces

See the full text of the Chinatown Working Group's Proposed Guiding Principles here:
Download CWG_WT_Guiding_Principles_11_02_2009

From the beginning, the Chinatown Working Group has emphasized inclusiveness – anyone is welcome to become a part of their deliberations (although some factions have chosen not to participate). But any time so many groups representing competing interests are involved, there are bound to be substantial conflicts. There are, for example, concerns in some quarters that the Bloomberg administration is determined to turn Chinatown into a tourist trap, a downtown version of Times Square. No one wants to see a center of Chinese life in America destroyed (as has happened to Chinatowns in other big cities). But, at the same time, business interests see value in making the neighborhood an even bigger tourist destination than it is today.

During the time that the Chinatown Working Group has been meeting, the ground has shifted. Upon its creation, many people were dismayed that the neighborhood was left out of the just completed rezoning of the Lower East Side. Developers descended on Chinatown, making plans to build tall residential and retail towers that preservationists felt destroyed the character of an historic neighborhood. Affordable housing advocates had grown increasingly concerned about the displacement of low-income residents. The economic downturn has, at the very least, made the case for rezoning less urgent. While there's general agreement that real estate speculators are down but definitely not out, worries about economic survival have come to the forefront.

Michael Levine, co-chair of the CWG's zoning committee told me he hoped to present a zoning plan to the city in the spring. But he said the organization is not thinking narrowly. Levine asserted the city would have little interest in rezoning Chinatown now because the neighborhood  is not seen as immediately endangered. For this reason, the CWG is developing a broad plan, including zoning, but addressing all of Chinatown's business, housing and cultural needs and opportunities. Levine believes a more global approach will greatly increase the odds of the city buying into the zoning revisions his committee is envisioning.

We'll have more on the Chinatown Working Group's progress after today's meeting.

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