Six years ago, many organizations came together under the auspices of the Chinatown Working Group (CWG) to craft a master plan for the neighborhood. The report detailing their recommendations was forwarded to the Department of City Planning. It included the proposed creation of a Special Chinatown and Lower East Side zoning district to address both the preservation and affordability of a wide swathe of Lower Manhattan. Last month, the effort suffered a setback when Carl Weisbrod, director of City Planning, responded.
The CWG was created following Community Board 3’s controversial rezoning of 111 blocks of the Lower East Side in 2008. Some local groups were dismayed that Chinatown was excluded from that original process. All three downtown community boards have taken part in the Chinatown Working Group. The local boards must endorse the CWG’s zoning plans before they are officially considered by the city. But the planning department has already given its preliminary take.
In a letter sent to CB3 Chairperson Gigi Li dated Feb. 4, Weisbrod wrote:
…We have concluded that the Special Chinatown and Lower East Side Zoning District is not feasible at this time. We share many of the same goals as the CWG – in particular the preservation and development of affordable housing. In the spirit of our shared vision, we believe there are targeted areas of opportunity within the boundaries of your proposal that can further your hard work and help to advance the Mayor’s overarching goal of making New York a more equitable city.
So now the CWG must decide its next steps. From the beginning, members of the organization have disagreed about both strategy and the boundaries that should be considered for zoning changes. Various parts of the report impact not only the historic core of Chinatown but most of the Lower East Side and parts of the East Village.
Last week, CB3 Chairperson Li briefed her board’s land use committee about the ongoing deliberations within the Chinatown Working Group. The zoning study area includes various sub-districts. A committee of the CWG recently voted in favor of expanding sub-district A (see map) to include “Area 2,” which is roughly bounded by Houston Street, Grand Street, Bowery and Pitt Street. The full CWG will likely decide whether it agrees with that decision in a couple of weeks. Li raised concerns about the move, since it would encompass blocks rezoned in 2008, something CB3 has always opposed. The area also includes the former Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, now part of the Essex Crossing development project.
One board member, Lisa Kaplan, argued it would be a “slap in the face” by the Chinatown Working Group to revisit the previous rezoning. But Cathy Dang. executive director of CAAAV, said the expansion was meant to cover a larger number of tenants by the plan’s anti-harassment provisions. Carlina Rivera, a CB3 member who works for GOLES, said she understood the concerns about reopening the 2008 zoning initiative. But she added, the community should show resolve in advocating for a plan that’s been in the works for so many years. “One letter from the Department of City Planning,” is not a reason to “throw in the towel,” she said.
A representative from City Planning said the agency could be amenable to working with the community on a more modest proposal — especially one that emphasizes affordable housing development more than preservation. The mayor has released the broad strokes of a large-scale rezoning across New York City. While the details have not yet been made public, some activists have suggested it could undermine the Lower East Side’s contextual zoning.
The community board’s land use committee will likely devote more time to the Chinatown Working Group issue next month. We’ll let you know when we have those details. The CWG meets tonight at 5 p.m. at the Two Bridges Senior Apartments, 80 Rutgers Slip. To read the CWG’s community plan, click here.