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Chinatown Working Group Moves Quickly Towards Final Plan

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February Town Hall Meeting. Photo from CWG web site.

There appears to be a growing recognition that the Chinatown Working Group isn’t just about Chinatown.  It’s something members of the coalition – comprised of more than 40 neighborhood organizations – have recognized for some time. But as they race towards a self-imposed June deadline to present the city with a community-based plan, outsiders are beginning to take notice, as well. That much was obvious during the CWG’s monthly meeting yesterday afternoon.

The participants have been working for more than a year on proposals dealing with some of Chinatown’s most difficult issues, including affordable housing, historic preservation, economic development, education, social services, transportation and zoning. Their recommendations will be spelled out in a community development document and submitted to the City Planning Commission and the City Council for approval. If the document, known as a 197a plan, is approved, it would serve as a blueprint for city agencies in planning the neighborhood’s future.

The organization has established an ambitious timetable. Community Boards 1,2 and 3 have been asked to sign off on the “working plan” this month. A final document would be drafted and voted on in June. The application would then be delivered to the city, triggering a lengthy review process. Yet, even as this strategy takes shape, there are new obstacles (and perhaps opportunities) for the group to confront.

During yesterday’s meeting, there were several new faces. Among them, Damaris Reyes from the neighborhood preservation organization Good Old Lower East Side, Danny Rosenthal of the Educational Alliance and representatives from the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side. Reyes told me GOLES is weighing whether to become involved in the process because it is beginning to look like the final plan might very well encompass not only the historic core of Chinatown but also a large swath of the Lower East Side.

The Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side has demanded the inclusion in the proposal of parts of the LES (such as the Two Bridges area) excluded from the rezoning of the neighborhood in 2008.  The question of the proposal’s boundaries has been so controversial that the CWG has put it off up until now. But in the next month, the organization’s “working teams” will begin to address the issue, and then the group as a whole will debate how expansive the borders ought to be.

For the past year, the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the LES has refused to join the Chinatown Working Group.  Even if the 197a plan’s boundaries stretch onto the Lower East Side, it’s still possible they’ll sit on the sidelines. At yesterday’s meeting, the group’s spokesman, Michael Lalan, issued an ultimatum. On two separate occasions, he said their participation is only assured if the Chinatown Working Group agrees to “proportional representation.”

In the past, members of the coalition have argued the CWG does not reflect the diversity of Lower Manhattan, especially when it comes to the representation of Latinos and low income residents. It’s unclear how the leadership of the Chinatown Working Group will respond to these demands. It seems obvious, however. that reconfiguring the organization’s makeup in some fundamental way would disrupt the tight timetable CWG organizers have outlined, leading up to a presentation to the city.

You can see the working plans on the CWG’s web site.

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