After more than two decades of frustration and false starts, Chinatown activists are closer than ever before to creating a business improvement district. Last night, Community Board 3 joined Community Boards 1 and 2, in voting to approve the proposal, which will now be considered by the Department of City Planning and the City Council.
Before the vote, supporters and opponents of the BID plan took turns at the microphone, in a sometimes contentious public speaking session. People on both sides repeated arguments made at five previous community board hearings, held across the neighborhood in the past month. Foes of the BID argued that annual assessments would place a heavy burden on struggling businesses and that the plan was really just a power grab by Chinatown’s political establishment.
But there was a new wrinkle last night: the presence of Chinese Staff and Workers Association’, a militant organization loathed by many CB3 members. Appearing at CB3 in large numbers for the first time since clashing with the board over the rezoning of the Lower East Side two years ago, Chinese Staff representatives alleged the BID is actually a means to “extort money from” working people.
Chinese Staff organizer Josephine Lee said the Chinatown Partnership (which is orchestrating the BID campaign) and City Councilmember Margaret Chin are determined to gentrify the neighborhood and “want Chinatown without Chinese people.” Later in the evening, Chin, who grew up on Mott Street and has spent her entire adult life working in the neighborhood, asked, “how can anyone say I don’t like Chinese people?” Chin added that she has a strong track record when it comes to protecting tenants in danger of being displaced by gentrification. “The BID simply means we will have a clean neighborhood everyone can be proud of,” Chin said.
During the public session, CB3 members chastised protesters for heckling speakers. Michael Lelan of the organization, National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, was escorted out of the meeting room but allowed to return. BID opponents then became outraged after CB3 Chair Dominic Pisciotta said he wanted to count the number of people in the auditorium “for” and “against” the BID. “You call this democracy?,” one woman yelled. Josephine Lee said the head count was unfair since many working people were unable to attend the meeting.
There were also some pointed questions from community board members. Harvey Epstein, a lawyer for the Urban Justice Center, wanted to know why some parcels had been removed from the proposed BID map, but not others. Kurt Trenkman successfully lobbied the BID steering committee to take out several parcels he owns along Lafayette Street. The Little Italy Merchants’ Association opted out, as well. Epstein questioned why Mott Street property and business owners, who also oppose the BID, have not been given the same consideration. BID supporters did not address his concerns directly, but did suggest they made a differentiation between carving out blocks on the outskirts of Chinatown, as opposed to Mott Street, the neighborhood’s historic core.
After a lengthy debate, CB3 decided to add a few provisions to their resolution, including language to exclude Columbus Park from the BID map and an amendment calling on the organization to pay workers a “living wage.” In the end, no one voted against the plan, although several members abstained, including Epstein. He later told me he chose not to vote “yes” because, in general, he does not believe BIDs are good for neighborhoods and not worth the assessments they charge. But Epstein, who was a strong supporter of Margaret Chin in her City Council campaign, said he did not want to stand in the way of something a lot of people in the community clearly wanted.
After the vote, Chin was obviously relieved and elated. She said the BID would help unite the neighborhood and make it stronger. Supporters posed for pictures outside the meeting room, some of them with brooms in hand. The battle is not over yet. A public hearing before the City Planning Commission will be held January 26. The proposal then heads to the City Council for final approval. BID backers heralded the fact that not a single member of any community board voted against the proposal. It’s a selling point they can be expected to repeat many times in the weeks ahead.