It seemed so simple. Members of the Chinatown Working Group (CWG) were being asked to approve a fairly routine document — a job description of sorts for an urban planning consultant who will begin working with the organization later this year. But last night, at the American Legion meeting room on Canal Street, the proceedings became complicated and contentious in a hurry.
The Chinatown Working Group is an unprecedented collaboration among 50 community organizations, who came together in 2008 to develop a long-range plan for the neighborhood focusing on housing, preservation, economic development, education, social services, parks, transportation and zoning. Their “preliminary action plans” nearly completed, the CWG is using a $150,000 grant from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. to hire a planner, who will help fine-tune the document for submission to the Dept. of City Planning.
Here’s the catch. Another quasi-government agency, the Economic Development Corp. (EDC), is overseeing how the grant is used and has insisted on controlling the committee screening the consulting finalists. Last night, a number of CWG members expressed alarm that the EDC will have four members on the selection panel, while the Chinatown Working Group only has three.
Members of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown & the Lower East Side urged the CWG to push back. A spokesman for the group, Michael Lalan, wanted language inserted into the RFP (Request for Proposals) giving the Chinatown Working Group veto power if the EDC tried to impose its will. But Victor Papa of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council said there was no need to “pick an unnecessary fight.” It’s very unlikely, Papa suggested, that the EDC would try to strong-arm the neighborhood. Thomas Yu, CWG co-chair, added that the final decision would rest with the community organization. The selection committee is only screening finalists.
Another proposal related to the selection guidelines proved even more controversial. It opened up a heated debate about the main sticking point delaying the Chinatown Working Group’s master plan — namely – how expansive should it be? The discussion was sparked by a suggestion from Lalan to add the words “Lower East Side” to the document wherever Chinatown appears. Largely due to his coalition’s advocacy, the CWG has agreed to a big “study area,” encompassing most of the LES, as well as Chinatown. But it became clear last night, some members are only willing to go so far when it comes to the issue of “boundaries.”
Bob Lee of the Asian American Arts Center said the Chinatown Working Group is, fundamentally, about Chinatown. He argued that inserting language about other neighborhoods would “send a false message to the rest of the city.” Zella Jones of Community Board 2 said references about the Lower East Side would have the effect of excluding other neighborhoods, such as Tribeca and Soho.
Lalan responded, “So you’re saying the Bowey Alliance of Neighbors shouldn’t be part of the Chinatown Working Group?” His point: the organization may have at one time been all about Chinatown, but is now a reflection of each of the 50 diverse groups sitting at the table. In the end, the members rejected the proposal, opting instead for more generalized language referencing Chinatown and “surrounding areas.” But the debate is not over. Co-chairman Jim Solomon said zoning proposals would hopefully be presented to the full board in September. Differences among members about the breadth of various “land use” plans will presumably need to be worked out before a final vote on the master plan takes place.
One land use issue appears to have been worked out. Last night Papa told me he believes a proposal to include the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA) in the Chinatown Working Group’s blueprint seems to be off the table. Earlier this month, CWG members got an earful from Community Board 3, which has been trying to reach a consensus on a SPURA development plan for two years.
At a meeting of CB3’s land use committee, Rabbi Y.S. Ginzberg said he’s supportive of the Chinatown Working Group but is perplexed why they were “spreading their tentacles outward.” He asked, “Did you do outreach in all of the impacted communities?” Michael Lalan, part of the CWG delegation at the community board meeting, said they had spoken with some residents of the Grand Street cooperatives, many of whom are supportive of restrictive zoning to prevent luxury residential development.
Lenny Greher, president of East River Housing specifically asked Chinatown Working Group members to remove the SPURA parcels from its proposed community development maps. “You have a choice now,” he said. “I’ve told you what I think should be done. If you think otherwise, keep them in… (But) if you want to pick up a friend in these negotiations, that’s another story.” During the meeting, CWG members intimated they had already decided to stay clear of the SPURA issue. Yesterday, Papa confirmed that, indeed, the SPURA debate is one issue the Chinatown Working Group will not tackle.