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Chinatown’s Future To Be Debated in Town Hall Next Week

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Mott Street, in the historic center of Chinatown

Next Monday, community activists will gather at P.S. 130 on Baxter Street for a key town hall meeting on the future of Chinatown. The event is being sponsored by the Chinatown Working Group (CWG), an organization comprised of more than 40 neighborhood “stakeholders,” including representatives from all three downtown community boards.

The coalition, in its mouthful of a mission statement, says its “objective  is to articulate common goals for Chinatown’s future with consideration for its impact on adjacent New York City communities, and to formulate and work with New York City agencies to implement a precise, comprehensive, meaningful, timely and broadly supported community-based plan.”

In December, after meeting for more than a year, the organization passed a set of guiding principles addressing housing, zoning, preservation, culture, education, economic development and other issues.  At the town hall, residents will be encouraged to offer feedback on preliminary “action plans.” The planners say it will be a “working session where everyone is encouraged to participate in smaller breakout ‘charrette’ groups, honing in on specific topics of interest or issues.  Feedback from the smaller sessions will help further refine our wider action plan for the community.”

Participants will also be asked to weigh in on a controversial issue  the CWG has avoided up until now: defining Chinatown’s boundaries. The topic is sure to reopen old wounds from the sweeping rezoning of the Lower East Side two years ago.  In an article published last February titled, “Where’s Chinatown? That’s a Touchy Subject,” the New York Times explored why the question of boundaries is so sensitive:

Recent rezoning to protect 111 blocks in the East Village and the Lower East Side spurred sometimes contentious conversations among Chinatown residents. With developers no longer able to build high-rises on the East Village’s narrow streets, many Chinatown residents feared they would begin eyeing the nearest neighborhood: theirs. “Folks were very upset about the rezoning,” said James Solomon, chairman of the Chinatown and Neighbors Committee of Community Board 2. “But out of that has emerged the beginning of a really wonderful process of community-based planning.”

But it wasn’t only people in Chinatown who were upset. Some people (but by no means everyone) along the waterfront – primarily Chinese and Latino residents – were outraged that the rezoning did not include the area below Grand Street, including the Two Bridges neighborhood. Victor Papa, a CWG member and president of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, acknowledges the extraordinary efforts this time around to include all points of view. But, at a recent meeting, he warned that defining boundaries too early and too narrowly could re-ignite old tensions. And Papa, zoning committee co-chair, told The Lo-Down there are a significant number of people who are determined to accomplish now what they could not in 2008. In other words, they see the current process as a “re-do” of the LES rezoning project.

June 1, 2009: Protesters chanted "Chinatown not for sale, Lower East Side not for sale"

Thomas Yu, co-chair of the Chinatown Working Group, told us he’s personally open to the idea of discussing expansive Chinatown boundaries.  He suggested, however, that the organization would have to be convinced there’s a “groundswell of support in the community” for a rezoning project encompassing such a large swath of Lower Manhattan.  There have been some small rumblings of discontent. At a town hall last year, members of a group called the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the LES, staged a protest outside.  They addressed their concerns during a followup meeting, but declined to join the ongoing discussions, calling the process “racist.”  They may have had, however, a partial change of heart. Word is, some members of the group plan to attend the upcoming town hall.

The CWG announced its intention late last year to present the city with a 197A plan, a comprehensive blueprint for the neighborhood.  Some people in the community believe that city planners are more likely to support a proposal  with fairly limited boundaries, rather than one that encompasses a larger area.  Yu said there will be no preconceived notions about boundaries during next week’s conversation. He said participants will be working from a “base map” that will include all of Lower Manhattan.

If you would like to read  the Chinatown Working Group’s guiding principles and action plans, go to their web site. The town hall will be held Monday night at 7pm, at P.S. 130, the Hernando de Soto School, 143 Baxter Street.

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