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Chinatown Working Group Receives Grant, Leans Towards Expansive “Study Area”

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Mott Street in Chinatown.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corp. agreed yesterday to award a $150,000 grant to the Chinatown Working Group (CWG), a broad-based community organization developing a comprehensive plan for the neighborhood. The grant will be used to hire a planning firm, to finalize a proposal that will be submitted to New York City’s Planning Commission later this year.

The Chinatown Working Group includes representatives of Lower Manhattan’s three community boards and more than 40 other organizations. For more than a year, they’ve been working to develop a vision for Chinatown encompassing historic preservation, economic development, zoning, education, culture, transportation, open space and housing.

At their monthly meeting earlier this week, “working teams” updated the full group on their progress. Some of them formally submitted “preliminary action plans” and proposed “study areas.” But two teams (Economics/Transportation/Security & Culture/Affordability/Preservation/Zoning) said they needed more time to work out several difficult issues.

The team dealing with zoning matters did, however,  submit a proposed “study area” that can only be described as expansive.  It extends from the Brooklyn Bridge, to 14th Street and all the way over to Avenue D — clearly well beyond even the most liberal definition of the sprawling Chinatown neighborhood. These boundaries have not been adopted by the full Chinatown Working Group. But in recognition of a strong desire among some participants to broaden the study area, the other working teams will now reassess their proposed plans, incorporating neighborhoods not previously taken into account.

The new direction seems to, at least in part, reflect the organization’s determination to represent the interests not just of Chinatown but of the Lower East Side, as well. The Chinatown Working Group was created in the aftermath of the controversial rezoning of the LES in 2008, which did not encompass Chinatown and most of the East River waterfront.

One group, the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the LES, had refused to take part in the deliberations until recently. A spokesperson for the coalition, Josephine Lee, told me she’s pleased that the CWG appears to be leaning towards a larger study area. She said the goal now is to make sure the focus stays on their core issues — preserving affordable housing for low income residents on the waterfront and protecting them from the effects of gentrification.

The Culture/Affordability/Preservation/Zoming (CAPZ) team will spend the next month or so trying to resolve their remaining differences. Among the questions to be answered: should developers of residential buildings be required to set aside a certain number of units for affordable housing?   Should the program be voluntary or mandatory?  What should be the guidelines of a proposed historic district in Chinatown? What height restrictions should be imposed in the neighborhood?  How should restrictions f building height and bulk be balanced with the need to create new affordable housing?

The final “action plans” will be used to develop, what’s known as a 197-a proposal, which (if approved by the Planning Commission and City Council) would serve as a guide to city agencies mapping out the neighborhood’s future.  The 197-a plan would not trigger zoning changes. That would be accomplished through a separate application process. It should be noted that it’s highly unlikely the group would try to rezone the entire proposed study area. Rather, they would zero in on specific neighborhoods, such as the historic center of Chinatown.

While most everyone agrees it’s worthwhile to articulate the community’s collective vision for the neighborhood, a lot of people believe 197-a plans are fairly toothless. The City Charter states, “The existence of an adopted 197-a plan shall not preclude the sponsor or any other city agency from developing other plans or taking actions not contemplated by the 197-a plan that may affect the same geographic area or subject matter.”

The action plans are now being reviewed by Community Boards 1, 2 and 3. At one time, the Chinatown Working Group hoped to present the final plan to the city this spring. It now seems much more likely that will be delayed until September or October.

For more information on the preliminary action plans and to see a complete meeting schedule, visit the Chinatown Working Group’s web site.

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