Chinatown groups sue, calling zoning ‘racist’

By Albert Amateau

The Chinatown groups and their Lower East Side supporters who denounced the East Village/Lower East Side rezoning approved in October as “racist,” went to court last week to annul the environmental impact statement for the 111-block land-use measure.

Soon after legal papers were filed in State Supreme Court on Feb. 5, about 70 Chinatown and Lower East Side opponents of the rezoning stood shivering on the steps of City Hall, chanting against what they called Mayor Bloomberg’s “racist rezoning policies.”

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, including the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, Chinese Restaurant Alliance, National Mobilization Against Sweatshops and six individuals, charged that the Department of City Planning’s environmental impact statement for the rezoning “failed to address the disproportionate racial impact on low-income communities of color.”

The suit asks the court to toss out the E.I.S completed on Sept. 26, and order a new one that includes all the required issues.

The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s lawyer, Stanley Mark, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs, but AALDEF is not a plaintiff in the action.

Nevertheless, many East Village/Lower East Side groups and a prominent Chinatown group, Asian Americans for Equality, supported the rezoning of the area that extends from Bowery and Third Ave. on the west to Avenue D on the east and from E. 13th St. on the north to Houston, Delancey and Grand Sts. on the south.

The rezoned district excludes Chinatown and the Lower East Side south of Grand St. — an area that the suit contends should have been studied in the environmental review.

The Department of City Planning and the supporting groups intended the rezoning as a means of preserving neighborhood character and discouraging luxury development. Upzoning for greater density of new buildings was intended to provide opportunities for affordable housing development.

But the lawsuit contends that the voluntary inclusionary zoning program implemented by the rezoning might not result in any affordable housing because developers often do not choose to build affordable units in exchange for higher building densities. In addition, the suit says that any affordable housing that could be built would require a higher income than many area residents have and could result in displacing current tenants.

The lawsuit also cites a study by the Hunter College Center for Community Planning that contends the rezoning would accelerate luxury development and “concentrate [luxury development] in low-income communities of color.”

The suit also claims the rezoning will push luxury redevelopment into areas of Chinatown and the Lower East Side excluded

from the rezoned district.

Over the entire rezoning area, building density is increased by 16 percent to 34 percent, the suit notes. However, along Delancey and East Houston Sts. and Avenue D, the building density is increased more than 100 percent, and along Chrystie St. the density increase is 147 percent — “all areas composed primarily of people of color who are most vulnerable to involuntary displacement,” the suit says.

But Valerio Orselli, executive director of the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association and a supporter of the rezoning, said later that the claim that people of color predominate on those wide streets is misleading.

“[The plaintiffs] are including the New York City Housing Authority houses on Avenue D,” Orselli said. “They are already built higher than the new zoning limits and are not subject to the same reviews.”

The suit also cites the proposed $50 million, two-year-long reconstruction of Chatham Square as contributing to the cumulative impact of the rezoning on Chinatown.

“The Department of City Planning waited to announce the reconstruction of Chatham Square approximately two weeks after the City Council approved the rezoning plan,” the suit says. “The [Chatham Square reconstruction] will cause displacement, increase traffic and generally impact the same area that the rezoning plan impacts,” the suit says.

Nevertheless, Chatham Square is outside the edge of the quarter-mile secondary area that City Planning included in the environmental impact study for the rezoning, the suit says.

“Despite the pressures both plans will place on Chinatown and the Lower East Side, D.C.P. failed to examine the cumulative impact,” the suit charges.

At the Feb. 5 rally on the City Hall steps, Steven Wong, a plaintiff in the suit and a Chatham Square small business representative, said, “The city tried to sneak in their plans for Chatham Square right after excluding us from the rezoning. And again when the community came out in unanimous opposition against [the reconstruction], Bloomberg officials told us it was already decided. The impact it’s having on small business is devastating,” Wong said.

In a response to the suit, Susan Amron, deputy chief of the Environmental Law Division of the city Law Department, said, “We think the city has acted appropriately, and we are responding through our litigation papers. Since the case is pending, we’ll decline to say more than that.”