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TLD Interview: City Council Member Margaret Chin

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Council member Margaret Chin at the 2012 Lunar New Year Parade. Photo via Chin's Facebook page.

City Council member Margaret Chin is three-quarters of the way through her first term serving District 1, which includes the Lower East Side and Chinatown, as well as Soho, Tribeca, the Financial District and the South Village.  Recently, we sat down with her  to talk about some of the issues she has tackled in the past three years and to discuss Chin’s priorities in the months leading up to her re-election campaign next year.

We began with the Seward Park Development Project, which is now winding its way through the seven-month public approval process.  Chin’s colleagues will be looking for her guidance in the fall when the high profile land use application will likely be voted on by the Council.

Chin believes it’s a major accomplishment that the mixed-use plan for the Lower East Side finally moved forward last year after more than 40 years of neighborhood infighting.  The city’s proposal states that the affordable apartments (around 450 units) will only remain in the affordable housing program for 60 years.  The board’s planning guidelines called for permanent affordability. Chin, a lifelong advocate for low and middle income housing said,  “I think permanent affordability is so critical, and hopefully in the ULURP (land use approval) process, we can engage the city” on the issue.

As for the city’s plan to allow “big box stores” in the project, something the community board opposes, Chin said it’s another topic she plans to discuss with planning officials.  While Chin did not indicate whether she supports the city’s “strong preference” to move the historic Essex Street Market into a new building, she did suggest its status as an incubator should be protected and, ideally, expanded. “We want to make sure that there are opportunities for small business and that there is an incubator,” Chin said.

Beyond Seward Park, Chin indicated she would be focusing a lot of energy in the coming year on helping small business start-ups succeed.  Within the Council, there’s talk of reviving the Small Business Survival Act, which seeks to curtail skyrocketing commercial rents.  Chin said there are a lot of things the city could be doing to help small businesses downtown:

We want (incubators) down here.  And once (businesses) incubate they need space to expand. They can get their idea going in a cubicle but then they need office space… There are so many people who want to be entrepreneurs… We really want (the city) to work with us to really focus on helping small business. They have a lot of programs in place to facilitate new business. That’s great. But let’s take a look at businesses that are here already. What are their needs? How do we get them to know the services that are available?

Chin’s office has been trying to set up a small business directory, linking companies experiencing similar challenges.  All too often, Chin suggested, concerns don’t reach the City Council until it’s almost too late.   Council staffers had a tough time, for example, finding restaurant owners willing to testify about the city’s health department inspections, even though there was widespread displeasure with the system.

Yonah Schimmel, 137 East Houston; Chin's office helped the longtime LES business cope with its street construction woes.

There’s a lot of concern throughout the district about the health of small “mom and pop” stores as more national chains set their sights on New York City.  Community Board 3 is looking at whether zoning laws restricting chains could be an option.  Chin mentioned a proposed rezoning on the Upper West Side, which would limit the size of storefronts on certain streets.  She’s not sure whether this kind of restriction would be good for the Lower East Side and other downtown neighborhoods, but said it’s worth exploring.

In her first term, Chin has dealt with several controversial issues, including the establishment of business improvement districts in Chinatown and Soho and NYU’s massive rezoning proposal.   The creation of the Chinatown BID, which Chin had been championing for many years, was a big political victory. But many of these campaigns have earned Chin some enemies, particularly in Soho where political activists have been less than pleased with her leadership.

Controversy has also surrounded Chin’s decision to side with the owner of 135 Bowery, a 194-year-old federal house, which the Landmarks Preservation Commission wanted to protect.  Preservation activists were furious with her for scuttling the designation.  But in recent months, Chin has been meeting with Landmarks Commission Chair Robert Tierney about designating several buildings, including the Bowery Mission, the Bowery Bank (124 Bowery) and buildings at 345 Grand Street and 339 Grand Street.  She has also been in contact with the board of the Bialystoker Nursing Home on East Broadway, a building that is reportedly about to be sold and apparently demolished.

Bialystoker Nursing Home on East Broadway.

Several months ago, preservation groups filed an application with the commission to designate the building.  Tonight, Community Board 3’s Parks Committee will vote on a resolution urging the LPC to act.  Chin said she’s been trying to find out from the nursing home board what the prospective new owner has planned, but information has been hard to come by.  The situation is complicated by the fact that the home’s union, which is owed $4 million from Bialystoker, opposes landmark designation. Chin told us:

It’s not just simply (a case of), ‘this is a nice building, we should landmark it.’  We have to look at all the issues involved and all of the people. You have a lot of workers who lost their jobs and lost their benefits and if there’s a way to really compensate them for that we have an obligation to do that…. (The nursing home) told us they reached out to many different agencies that have this kind of expertise and they could not get the help they needed (to save the institution).  This is a non-profit, a charitable organization that had all good intentions. (In the end it didn’t work out), so now we need to figure out how to remedy the situation.

Generally speaking, Chin said there are competing priorities that need to be weighed when deciding whether to support landmark designation:

There are properties on the Lower East Side and in Chinatown that are probably worthy of landmark designation.  Some of them are bigger landmarks that are very significant. I really want to look at balancing landmark designation and opportunity for development for the community.  Land is so limited, so you really have to look at what’s the potential in some of these areas, on Grand Street, the Bowery, on Chrystie where you have public transportation, where the streets are wider.  On one hand, you know, you can try to preserve the historic character of some of the past but you can’t save every building.  We would be living in the past. So it’s a balancing act – seeing what can be done to benefit the community as a whole.  It’s on a case-by-case basis and also a lot of the properties, we’ve been talking to the owners.”

There’s a real need, Chin indicated, to reach out to building owners about the benefits of preservation and to explain what kinds of financial assistance is available to help them make improvements.  Upgrades are not only necessary to save buildings, of course, but also to save lives.

Chin, other elected officials, community activists and residents celebrated a court victory in the Grand Street fire case.

In her first term, Chin’s office has dealt with a number of devastating apartment fires, stretching from Chinatown to Soho and beyond.   Not long after her election, a fire swept through an entire block of Grand Street, killing an elderly man and displacing hundreds of residents.  In one of those buildings, 289 Grand Street, Chin along with her former colleagues at Asian Americans for Equality, have urged the property owner to renovate rather than demolish the charred apartment building.  Recently, a housing court judge ruled in favor of the tenants, ordering the owner to make repairs.

The residents of 321-323 Grand Street, two buildings completely destroyed in the fire, do not have the option of returning to their homes. As a new all-commercial complex rises from the ashes of the Chinatown blaze, Chin said she’s still working on finding new rent-regulated apartments for those tenants.  “I have spoken with HPD (the Department of Housing Preservation and Development) about it and I am really interested in working with them to replace the affordable housing that was lost in that fire.” Chin said helping constituents with these kinds of issues is one of the best parts of her job. “The gratifying part is that – on a small level – we are helping individual families and people,” she said.

What about Chin’s fourth year priorities? In the next several months, she hopes City Council Speaker Christine Quinn will schedule a hearing on legislation Chin proposed last year that would crack down on the sale of counterfeit products.  She’s also pressing ahead with an issue that continues to loom large in Chinatown — the NYPD’s refusal to reopen Park Row more than a decade after 9/11.  There will  be big budget battles ahead.  Chin is concerned about deep cuts to many social services, including after school programs and threats (which are made annually) to close fire houses.  Speaking of proposed funding cuts for public libraries, Chin said, “library cuts are not acceptable, especially in our district where every library is crowded.”

All-in-all, it looks to be a fairly full plate in the next year. “It’s never a dull moment around here,” Chin said, with a smile.


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  1. The Bialystoker Homes isn’t just “any” building. It is iconic in the sense of its architecture and history. This 1931 Art Deco style building maintains a prominent visual presence on the streetscape and clearly meets the criteria for landmarking both on architectural and cultural grounds.
    The building’s monumental massing and wonderful ornament – including the building’s name over the entry spelled out in Hebrew style font and religious symbols carved in stone – together result in a majestic yet intimate architectural design, a design that not only speaks to us today but reflects the Bialystoker Home’s importance to the surrounding Jewish population at the time of its construction.  In 1931, 25 years after Russian Jews had fled from a pogrom in Bialystok, Russia, more than 5,000 Jewish people crowded East Broadway to witness the opening ceremonies. 
    The Bialystoker Home is an important example of the institutional buildings that were constructed throughout the Lower East Side during the decades around the turn of the 20th century.  These facilities provided lifeblood for poor and struggling immigrant families.  Preserving the physical relationship between the Lower East Side’s historic tenement residential buildings and more architecturally prominent institutional buildings, such as Bialystoker, is essential to our understanding of the immigrant experience at that time.  It also serves to remind us how important good works are for current generations.  The Bialystoker Home must be preserved as a critical component of the Lower East Side’s architectural and cultural history.   

  2. In the midst of a poverty-stricken Lower East Side, during the Depression, an immigrant benevolent society erected a stunning Art Deco building to take care of the infirm and aged. FDR sent a congratulatory telegram to the Bialystoker Home on its opening day in 1931—an occasion attended by thousands. This is not just another “nice” building to use Councilwoman Chin’s language. It is a testament to how transnational migrants support their city of origin by giving something of great importance to their new Lower East Side community. The Bialystoker’s response in facing the challenge of adjusting to a new life was to give generously to their community of origin while enriching their new city with a remarkable building. 

    This building is equally marked by the labor of newer immigrants and migrants who worked in its nursing home who are part of its rich story of caring for those who could not care for themselves. At $4million, the debt to the union could be paid off quite nicely if the Bialystoker Board would do what these earlier immigrants did: have this building benefit the community. Adaptable re-use, could include affordable housing, rather than insisting that the only option is to tear down a building through selling a neighborhood’s history to the highest bidder. This Board is supposed to represent an immigrant mutual aid society.This debt was run up in ten years, they can afford the time to consider more seriously options that would match their founders’ mission and commitment to community.It also has considerable architectural significance. The Landmarks Preservation Commission has been deluged with letters, petitions and postcards sent by people from all walks of life, as well as testimony from academics and professional societies confirming its significance. Councilwoman Chin needs to pay attention to her whole district. CB3 understands this given the two meetings to date in which overwhelmingly those committees voted in favor of landmarking.This building is a site marking historic and recent immigrant labor, built by immigrant families who sacrificed to buy individual bricks, including on installment plans. Its Deco portal, depicting Jewish symbols, shows us how Bialystoker’s immigrants are an early model for how today’s transnational migrants and Diasporas create new cultural and architectural traditions. It demonstrates how immigrants creatively contributed to the vocabulary of New York’s architecture and cultural life in a dialogue combining tradition and modernism.In keeping this building standing, these stories will remain honored for future generations,

  3. The Bialystoker Board has tried to frame the situation as a dispute between laid-off workers versus  preservationists.  This is simply not true.What this is — is a conflict between the Bialystoker Board, seeking top dollar from a tear-down developer and the community at large that sees the value of retaining a building that reflects the Jewish legacy of caring on the Lower East Side for those in need.There is a way for workers and other employees  to receive the $4million  they are owed for back pay and payments to health, retirement and other funds AND, at the same time, preserve the historic building.  Even a lesser sale price for a landmark building, would bring in more than enough money to pay the workers.CM Chin should take a leadership role to get this building back on the market to attract experienced developers who would preserve the building and adapt it for the benefit of the community, while profiting from new construction on the garden site.   
    What this is — is a conflict between the Bialystoker Board, seeking top dollar from a tear-down developer and the community at large that sees the value of retaining a building that reflects the Jewish legacy of caring on the Lower East Side for those in need.
    There is a way for workers and other employees  to receive the $4million  they are owed for back pay and payments to health, retirement and other funds AND, at the same time, preserve the historic building.  Even a lesser sale price for a landmark building, would bring in more than enough money to pay the workers.
    CM Chin should take a leadership role to get this building back on the market to attract experienced developers who would preserve the building and adapt it for the benefit of the community, while profiting from new construction on the garden site. 

    Let us remember that the Bialystoker Center and Home is not private property, but is a not-for-profit organization that should answer to the concerns of the Lower East Side community.

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