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Dept. of City Planning Rejects Expansive Chinatown Rezoning Proposal

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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.


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  1. I may be alone in feeling that Chinese and Chinatown have been gaslit by the misnomer of Chinatown Working Group. I don’t see Chinatown stores encroaching North of Canal anymore and in fact, there are at least three retail vacancies South of Canal on Mott Street. Also, multiple Chinese organizations with property interests have pulled out of the meetings for Chinatown Working Group.

    However, a few ethnic Chinese names attached to support the concept of Chinatown Working Group will offend many nonChinese. It makes us look like we encroach, correct? And that we aren’t part of the multi culti fabric of the city. LES is Loisaida after all. Local NYCHA is not predominantly Chinese. Why is it called Chinatown Working Group? A working title is something you use temporarily sometimes to prolong revealing the true identity or nature of something.

    Is this a character test? Chinese are loathe to take an oppositional position other than to simply remove themselves from the meetings especially since many believe CAAV is a de facto arm of AAFE and many property owners are scared of AAFE. But if AAFE is about equality, just tell them what your issues are – say it to their face and sign your name to it – and let them decide if you deserve to be on their hit list. Give them a chance because we might not need them now but they can always be important to the community later.

    Does AAFE have a new building near Flushing High School? Are they going to talk to the students at assembly about the conflicts with Chinese storekeepers?

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