Two Non-Profits at Odds Over Forsyth Produce Market

Forsyth Street Market.
Forsyth Street Market.

When it comes to the Forsyth Street produce market, conflict is nothing new. But now a new controversy is brewing — as two venerable New York City non-profits tussle for control of the sidewalk running alongside the Manhattan Bridge.

The last flare-up on Forsyth Street occurred over the summer, when the 5th Precinct began a crackdown on fruit and vegetable vendors, citing concerns about sanitation and illegal parking.  Several weeks ago, State Senator Daniel Squadron got all of the stakeholders together — including city agencies, community activists and other elected officials — in hopes of mediating an agreement.

Recently, the NYPD and the Department of Transportation endorsed a temporary solution, allowing the vendors to load and unload their fruits and vegetables, but establishing a “No Parking” zone along Forsyth.  Meanwhile, officials looked ahead to a more permanent fix. There seemed to be general agreement that the Forsyth Plaza renovation project, set to begin later this year, would make it easier for the vendors to operate.

Three years ago, the Renaissance Economic Development Corp. (an affiliate of Asian Americans for Equality), received permission through the city’s Public Plaza Program to revitalize the market.  The plan calls for city-funded improvements, including the widening of the sidewalk and the creation of a public recreational and arts space in the abandoned triangle above the street.

But now another organization, the Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project, has a different proposal.  In July, the group gathered together with vendors, under the bridge to protest the city’s enforcement sweeps. Street Vendor Project Director Sean Basinski released a report showing that 949 summonses were issued to Forsyth Street vendors in 2009 and 2010, far outpacing any other market in the city.

Yesterday Basinski told The Lo-Down his organization has applied to establish a green market on Forsyth Street, as a way of assuring that the harassment of vendors comes to an end.  Basinski said the Street Vendor Project is willing to withdraw the application if AAFE signs a agreement promising to protect the vendors. But it’s apparent recent conversations between the two sides have not gone particularly well.

On Friday, AAFE called a news conference to discuss the situation. Kevin Kong, an official with Renaissance Economic Development Corp., said the organization had been planning the plaza project for two years, has held numerous public meetings to gather feedback and has the blessing of Community Board 3.  He suggested the competing proposal would only slow down progress.

In an interview yesterday afternoon, Kong said the Urban Justice Center bid amounts to “intervention from the outside.” He added, “this is a community, grassroots effort” which has sought to balance the many competing needs of the neighborhood.  He argued that AAFE had been the vendors’ biggest champion. But at the same time, Kong said, other stakeholders, including pedestrians, families eager to enjoy a new public space and local businesses must be accommodated, as well. He also expressed a concern that a green market would lead to accelerated gentrification, pushing out bargain produce stands in favor of high end local/organic vendors.  Finally, Kong argued that AAFE was not in a position to sign any document, since it is not a government authority.

Basinski told us his organization became involved in Chinatown during the summer after vendors came seeking help. He called AAFE’s plans for the area “vague” and said there must be guarantees that the merchants are not going to be pushed out.  Responding to Kong’s concerns, he added that there’s nothing in the city application requiring vendors to sell only locally gown produce.

Basinski said he asked Community Board 3 to support the green market application, but it declined. Since the board already voted to support the AAFE proposal in 2008, CB3’s executive committee decided it could not weigh in on a conflicting application. Their 2008 resolution read, in part:

…the purpose of the (plaza) program is to create viable, long‐term social public spaces, particularly in communities lacking public space, and work with community partners to operate the space long term, with trash cleaning, maintenance, and management of vendors and activities for the community on site… the proposal submitted by Renaissance called for a plan to benefit the Chinatown community by regulating the usage of the Forsyth Street Plaza, have more open space, to have adequate rules of operation and trash cleanup and maintenance, to program community education, health, arts, and cultural activities on the site, and to refurbish dilapidated portions and bringing lighting under the bridge…”

Even though the green market application will not be heard, CB3’s transportation committee (next Tuesday) will take up the narrow issue of the proposed parking changes on Forsyth Street. There was supposed to be a vote on the matter last week, but members of the St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church, 27 Forsyth Street, strongly objected.  So there will be a public hearing before a vote takes place.

Meanwhile, city officials tell us the sidewalk project will get underway in a few weeks and should take 6-8 weeks to complete. Once finished, Renaissance will have direct responsibility for overseeing the market.  One of AAFE’s first priorities is sanitation under the bridge — making sure the general area is kept clean.

Sometime next year, the city’s architectural firm is expected to present a draft plan for the upper level of the Forsyth Plaza. The community will have an opportunity to weigh in on the design before the second phase of the project gets underway.

It remains to be seen how the new initiative from the Urban Justice Center will impact the plaza plans.