Will the past six years of work by dozens of community groups under the umbrella of the Chinatown Working Group (CWG) lead to tangible results? Or will the contentious local planning process leave the participants — and the neighborhood — empty handed? This is a question that may very well be answered in the next several weeks.
In February, City Planning Director Carl Weisbrod said a key proposal from the group, a Special Chinatown and Lower East Side Zoning District, is “not feasible at this time.” The response left the CWG and Community Board 3 struggling to chart a new course. Now some of the participants involved since the beginning have concluded that the Chinatown Working Group has outlived its purpose.
Late last month, the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council announced that it would withdraw its membership from the Chinatown Working Group at the end of June. Wilson Soo, a Two Bridges employee, will also be stepping down from his role as co-chairperson of the CWG. In a statement, the group said that the objectives of the planning body had been fulfilled. While it’s withdrawing from participating formally, Two Bridges intends to “independently support and advocate for the eventual implementation of the several CWG zoning resolutions now under review…” Another group, NoHo-Bowery Stakeholders, has also resigned. A third organization, the Chinese Progressive Organization, will not officially resign but will pull back from attending meetings on a regular basis.
Also last month, Community Board 3’s land use committee debated what, if anything, to do about the Chinatown Working Group’s proposals. The CWG was created in 2008 as a way of addressing outrage in Chinatown following a decision to exclude the neighborhood from a large-scale rezoning. It has always been understood that any plans coming out of the CWG would need to be approved by Community Boards 1, 2 and 3. But some community board members are not at all anxious to re-engage.
One of them, Lisa Kaplan, said the issue is hugely political and strategic. She said the letter from the Department of City Planning gives community activists little room to negotiate, and she argued it would be ill-advised for CB3’s land use committee to take over the implementation of a complex plan it did not create and does not fully grasp. The idea of creating a separate task force to deal with the CWG plan was floated. But others, including the committee chairperson, MyPhuong Chung, strongly disagreed. “The time is now,” she asserted, prodding committee members to talk about the substance of the proposals. The longer CB3 waits, she argued, the more out-of-scale apartment and hotel projects will enter the pipeline and the more affordable housing will be lost. “We have to do something,” she said. Ultimately, the panel agreed to draft a response to Weisbrod, stating that CB3 wishes to engage with the city, opening up a dialogue regarding Chinatown.
The proposal already submitted to the city seeks to address many issues, including affordable housing, historic preservation, job creation, education, open space and cultural resources. The boundaries of the proposed rezoning cover a wide swathe of Lower Manhattan, well beyond the historic core of Chinatown. The plan is broken up into several sub-districts (CB3 has already signed off on sub-districts A and B).
Some members of the Chinatown Working Group believe there’s more for the organization to accomplish. In an interview, Wendy Chung of Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association noted that the full CWG has not voted on all aspects of the plan. She wants to see all sub-districts approved by the CWG as well as the community boards. “I want to see the city take the whole plan,” she said. “I hope the Department of City Planning reconsiders. It was very unsetting to see their letter.” Cathy Deng, a CB3 member and head of CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, also advocated for a comprehensive approach. “I think we have more leverage with the city than we sometimes think we have,” Deng said. “It’s really imperative that everyone involved stays unified.”
Unity has long been a problem for the Chinatown Working Group. Influential establishment organizations, such as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, resigned many months ago. Asian Americans for Equality has not officially resigned but reportedly has not attended meetings in quite a long time (AAFE did not respond to requests for comment for this story).
Mae Lee of the Chinese Progressive Association explained why she won’t be going to many meetings in the future. “We have a plan, I think, a very good plan,”” she said. “It needs to be implemented now and that’s going to involve a negotiation with the city.” Lee, a member of CB3, added, “We have to work with the community boards and we have to work with the city.” Douglas Woodward, who represents property owners, agreed. “The community boards should take the lead,” he said. “I’m suggesting that a task force made up of members of all three community boards be formed” to advance the CWG proposals, Woodward said. All too often these days CWG meetings have become a platform for polemics and political agendas unrelated to the CWG’s core mission, he added.
Last month, CB3 Chairperson Gigi Li said she had spoken with her counterparts on Community Boards 1 and 2. Since the bulk of the potential rezoning area is in Community District 3, she said, the other boards are waiting to follow the Lower East Side board’s lead. A first step will be responding to Weisbroad in writing (that response has not yet been drafted).
Li will provide an update at the June meeting of CB3’s land use committee, which is coming up Wednesday night.