During the summer, it looked like the Chinatown Working Group (CWG) was on the verge of finalizing a comprehensive neighborhood development proposal for submission to the city. That was before a blow-up over the hiring of a planning consultant to help refine a 197A Plan and a more recent campaign by some participants to restructure the 51-member organization in the name of greater democracy. Now it appears likely the CWG will spend the remainder of this year regrouping and will not be ready to forward their proposal to the Department of City Planning until sometime in 2011.
Yesterday afternoon, the organization’s steering committee met to figure out how to proceed both in the short-term and down the road. The panel decided the full group would be asked, at this coming Monday’s monthly meeting, to nominate and elect new interim co-chairs. The terms of the current co-chairs, Thomas Yu and Jim Solomon, expire next week.
Also at Monday’s meeting, they agreed, the CWG will vote whether to form a sub-committee charged with revamping the way the organization is governed. Some have been critical of the two co-chair model, which has been in place since the CWG was formed two years ago. They argue it has stifled participation from many of the diverse organizations with seats at the table and placed an unfair burden on the group’s leadership, who like all members of the CWG, are volunteers.
Several members, including Chatham Green resident Danny Chen, are proposing an alternative. Calling for decentralization, they want the CWG to be run by a committee, made up of around ten people who would share leadership responsibilities. They would take turns moderating meetings. In a memo distributed yesterday, Chen explained:
Rather than a model where there is someone who ‘watches over’ a task, we can have a model where the task makes itself visible to everyone. Since this is a community effort consisting of volunteers, as long as the entire CWG knows the status of all the outstanding tasks, people can decide whether to step up or sit back and allow a particular piece to languish… This is largely the model of open source software development…
At last month’s full board meeting, many participants spoke in favor of greater involvement from more CWG members. Others were worried the organization would flounder without one or two designated leaders, arguing that “decision-making by committee” seldom works. K. Webster said “rotating leadership doesn’t necessarily lead to democracy.” She also warned that the biggest danger in prolonging the deliberations is “that people will lose interest.”
Chen has repeatedly said his proposal is not a “referendum” on Solomon and Yu. Many members praised them for holding the CWG together and overseeing the development of detailed action plans covering zoning, transportation, education, economic development, preservation and other issues. But others have not been so diplomatic, accusing the chairs of dismissing their concerns on a wide range of topics.
This point of view has been advanced by members of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side. Having sat out the first year of discussions, they only joined the Chinatown Working Group earlier this year. Since that time, they have advocated for a massive expansion of the 197A Plan’s boundaries, arguing that Chinatown and parts of the LES excluded from rezoning in 2008 are both in need of protection from gentrification. But members of the coalition became frustrated several weeks ago, complaining that CWG leaders were not taking their ideas seriously. They see the restructuring proposal as an anecdote to the perceived failings of the organization.
Members of the coalition and other CWG participants advocating a new governing model intend to refine their ideas before next Monday’s meeting. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen who (if anyone) will agree to serve as interim co-chairs. In the past, CWG members have not exactly jumped at the chance to serve in leadership positions.
CWG member Rob Hollander said yesterday all participants should understand how much is stake. “It’s a critical moment for the Chinatown Working Group,” he said. “The question must be asked, ‘Are we going to stay together?”