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Chinatown Zoning Talks Set to Begin; Some Activists Criticize Limited Scope

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A view of Chinatown from the Bowery.
A view of Chinatown from the Bowery.

The Department of City Planning (DCP), local elected officials and Community Board 3 kicked off a rezoning initiative in Chinatown last week. During an initial meeting of CB3’s land use committee, they outlined the neighborhood engagement process that will unfold during the next year.

After toiling over rezoning schemes for the past eight years, some community activists were relieved that the city is finally moving forward with a Chinatown plan. Others were outraged, accusing city planners and elected representatives of disrespecting their years of hard work under the auspices of the Chinatown Working Group (CWG).

The CWG was formed in 2008 as a response to complaints from neighborhood activists that the 111 block rezoning of the East Village and parts of the Lower East Side excluded Chinatown. The coalition of many local organizations came up with a comprehensive neighborhood plan, including a rezoning blueprint. Last year, it was rejected by the Department of City Planning, which called the proposal overly expansive.

Last Thursday’s meeting at Middle School 131 on Hester Street was led off by City Council member Margaret Chin. In her prepared statement, she referenced not only the Chinatown Working Group plan but also a 2002 proposal from the Rebuild Chinatown Initiative (a community vision effort initiated by Asian Americans for Equality.)  Here’s part of what Chin had to say:

I would like to thank everyone who has worked hard to create a brighter future for Chinatown, including members of the Rebuild Chinatown Initiative and those involved with the Chinatown Working Group. Their concerns about displacement and the wrong kind of development are my concerns too. The several years of work done by the Chinatown Working Group yielded a framework calling attention to the issues we all care about. And while this is valuable work, at this point in time, I believe we have a great opportunity to engage stakeholders – those from the community and city leaders – in a neighborhood planning process in Chinatown. That is why I invited DCP to participate in this discussion, along with the Borough President, to work in partnership with the community in a neighborhood planning conversation in Chinatown with the goal of creating an implementable neighborhood plan… I hope that this conversation will help us achieve the goal of creating more affordable housing… along with other goals that will help us preserve what makes Chinatown unique while ensuring its bright future.

Joel Kolkmann of the Department of City Planning followed Chin, telling local stakeholders that the previous community-based efforts, “established a lot of strong principles for us to work off of as a starting point.” Mentioning priorities such as affordable housing, small business preservation and historic preservation, Kolkmann said, “These are all goals we share but we do not feel that the Chinatown Working Group plan in its entirety is actionable. That’s why we were very excited earlier this year when Council member Chin approached us about initiating a conversation (in Chinatown).”

chinatown planning

chinatown zoning process

Kolkmann and Roxanne Earley, a staffer in Chin’s office, outlined a “Chinatown Public Engagement Process to Develop (an) implementation Plan.” A local steering committee will be created and public visioning sessions held over a period of several months. That rezoning plan will then go through the city’s land use approval process (ULURP). While boundaries have not yet been determined, the city has made it clear only a limited plan in the Chinatown neighborhood will be on the table.

Strong opposition came Thursday night from several quarters. An organization known as the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side staged a protest outside. Some of its members were ejected as the evening got underway for disrupting the meeting.

A statement, however, was read on their behalf.  “We are outraged and appalled,” the Coalition vented, “that our elected and appointed officials are railroading a plan to split up the Chinatown Working Group plan for the surrounding areas.” The statement continued, “This carving up of our community is continuing a legacy of discrimination and racist exclusion of the Lower East Side, pitting people of color against each other to fight for crumbs.”

A community board member, Enrique Cruz, pointedly asked city officials why the larger plan had been rejected. Edith Hsu-Chen, director of DCP’s Manhattan office, noted that rezoning efforts are labor intensive and consume a lot of the agency’s resources. “We don’t have another 8 to 9 years to implement a plan,” said Hsu-Chen. “We can do some things now and we can certainly do some things later. We want to make sure we have a plan that is implementable.”

cwg map
Sub-districts specified in the Chinatown Working Group Plan.

The Chinatown Working Group proposal divided much of Lower Manhattan into several sub-districts. In addition to the Chinatown core (sub-district A), there are zones covering the waterfront and public housing campuses running up the east side, among other areas. There’s a lot of concern about several mega-towers in the Two Bridges neighborhood (sub-district D).  The city rejected a request from Council member Chin for a ULURP to evaluate the large-scale development plans. As an alternative, DCP agreed to what’s being called an “enhanced environmental review” in Two Bridges.

CB3 member and GOLES Executive Director Damaris Reyes urged the city to include the waterfront in the rezoning initiative. “We are afraid about the impact of these developments on the waterfront community,” said Reyes. “This is our only shot. We do not have any time to waste. There is no other opportunity.” Arguing that the city is not taking seriously all of the work already undertaken by the community, Reyes insisted, “We need the city to step up. We need our elected (officials) to support us and really take charge here… No other response is acceptable.”

Others made the case that a piecemeal rezoning will only push unwanted development to sections of the neighborhood left unprotected. Cathy Deng, executive director of CAAAV said, “There’s no point in rezoning Chinatown if we don’t protect everything else… If we don’t protect the waterfront we are going to lose Chinatown.”

One huge project is already underway in the Two Bridges area: Extell Development's 80-story tower on the former Pathmark site.
One huge project is already underway in the Two Bridges area: Extell Development’s 80-story tower on the former Pathmark site.

In response, Hsu-Chen told board members, “I would like to reiterate that this is not a DCP process. This is a community process. We were excited when Council member Chin approached us earlier this year with a desire to talk about a potential neighborhood plan for a more focused area.” She emphasized that the city has joined with Chin, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and CB3.

At another point in the meeting, CB3 Land Use Committee Chair MyPhuong Chung said she believes it’s important to move the conversation to the next level and to stay focused on the Chinatown process. At the same time, Chung said, “I share your frustration that more of what we worked together on in the Chinatown Working Group is not being pushed forward.”

Trever Holland, president of Two Bridges Tower, pressed city officials on the reasons a down-zoning could not occur along the waterfront. His building is in the shadow of two looming luxury towers. Why, he asked, would a city administration so focused on building affordable housing pass up an opportunity to implement its Mandatory Inclusionary Housing Program in the Two Bridges area?

Hsu-Chen said, “The waterfront right now is zoned for high residential density… The only way to implement Mandatory Inclusionary Housing is to do an up-zoning, and I don’t think that’s what the community is asking for.” When Holland pointed out that the Chinatown Working Group Plan called for a down-zoning as well as affordable housing requirements, Hsu Chen responded, “We passed the most aggressive mandatory affordable housing plan in the nation. We’re all very proud of that… (The CWG) proposal does not, at all, fit within the city’s mandatory inclusionary housing framework. We cannot allow for applications that do not meet the framework.”

It’s likely that the community planning process will not begin until the end of this year. The next step will be selecting members of the steering committee.  That is sure to generate more controversy, as various neighborhood constituencies battle for spots on the panel.


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