Chinatown Working Group is still trying to work out a plan


By Lesley Sussman 

Two competing rezoning plans that outline a vision for the future land use of Chinatown and some of its surrounding neighborhoods were presented at last week’s Chinatown Working Group community meeting. But the rival plans elicited some frustration from Community Board 2 Chairperson Jo Hamilton, who said the working group members needed to make up their minds as to which plan they wanted to support.

Hamilton made her remarks at the C.W.G.’s Tues., April 15, joint Community Board 2 Chinatown and Neighbors and Community Board 1 Planning and Community Infrastructure Committees meeting, at P.S. 130, at 143 Baxter St.

The meeting’s purpose was to update members of Community Boards 1 and 2 on changes in the working group’s comprehensive development plan for the greater Chinatown area, which is expected to be submitted to the City Council within the next 18 months.

Hamilton, after hearing about the competing plans, told C.W.G. Co-Chairperson Jim Solomon that the rival plans were creating “tension” among the coalition’s 48 member groups.

“Don’t we need to resolve this before we proceed?” she asked.

Solomon replied that he wanted to keep the community boards engaged in the deliberation process, rather than simply present them with a finalized version of the plan.

“There are experts in this room who know these communities very well, and we need their input,” Solomon said. “We need to engage and should engage the community.” 

After the meeting, Hamilton told The Villager, “These two committees need to have some conversations among themselves before coming to the community boards. They’re bringing us some competing plans and they need to figure out what’s going on, and then come back to the community boards to get some more input.”

The proposals were developed by two of the C.W.G. “working teams,” whose task is to focus on various land-use issues. One plan drafted by the coalition’s Culture and Historic Preservation Working Team calls for the establishment of a still-to-be-defined area of Chinatown and the Lower East Side to be rezoned as a historic district.

The current proposed map for such a district includes East Houston St. on the north, the Brooklyn Bridge on the South, Centre St. and the Bowery on the west, and the East River on the east.

But other coalition members have suggested extending the historic district north to 14th St., so that the New York City Housing Authority-operated Lillian Wald, Baruch and Jacob Riis housing projects could also be included.

The historic-district proposal places emphasis on five points: maintaining the “unique character and energy of the streets,” preserving historical architecture and landmarks, making the district affordable to new immigrants, creating a place of opportunity and aid to struggling immigrants and preserving Chinese culture in the area.

A second proposal, which was drafted by the C.W.G.’s Economic Development and Traffic Transit, Public Safety Committee, calls for a smaller geographical area to be rezoned as a “special purpose district,” along with special protections that would regulate the height of any new construction in the area.

The special purpose district’s tentative boundaries would be Baxter St. to the Bowery, and Canal St. to Worth St. at Columbus Park. Lafayette St. and Centre St. would also be included.

This second plan emphasizes improving business practices in Chinatown to make the district more appealing to prospective customers and, thus, benefit business, providing targeted business assistance to help merchants enhance their strategies and practices, and pursuing transformational development projects that could strengthen Chinatown’s cultural and economic assets.

Both plans basically aim to preserve the character of Chinatown and the Lower East Side, and to prevent an oversaturation of the type of 30-story luxury towers that have begun to spring up in the area. But a major difference between the two is that, in a special purpose district, business owners would not have to contend with applications for city Landmarks Preservation Commission permits and other requirements for any type of improvement to their properties.

Both plans were presented at the April 15 meeting, raising questions and concerns from some of the about 60 residents, community activists and community board members who attended the session.

One resident who addressed the group expressed irritability over the inability of the C.W.G. to pin down the exact boundaries of its proposed historic district — even after months of deliberation. Former Community Board 2 member Lora Tenenbaum pointedly asked Solomon, “How do you define Chinatown?” 

Solomon replied that the C.W.G.’s Cultural and Zoning Committee has been hard at work to establish just such a definition.

“It’s like we’re on an airplane and everybody wants to get on,” he said. “We’re trying to establish some kind of balance between all the suggestions we’ve been receiving.”

Zella Jones, vice chairperson of the committee working on the special purpose district zoning, said that while she agreed some of the area’s buildings and sites did deserve special landmark status, her team’s proposal was a better alternative.

“The other proposal, although very sincere, is so incredibly broad,” Jones said, “while this one narrows it down while creating an environment that would preserve many buildings in the area that are already landmarked.

“The cultural and preservation people, they just want to preserve everything, everything, everything, like a mother’s instinct to just wrap your arms around it,” Jones added. “But when you get down to actual zoning and its impact on neighboring communities, there’s some ramifications for doing that kind of stuff that just needs to get worked out.”

Raising some concerns about the plan for a special purpose district was C.B. 2 member David Reck, an architect and chairperson of C.B. 2’s Land Use and Business Development Committee. Reck objected to a provision of the plan that would allow limited high-rise construction in a commercial corridor either along Canal or Centre Sts.

Reck said he was worried about the fate of small Asian businesses that were currently located in existing buildings along Canal St., should those buildings be demolished in order to build newer ones.

“Will this incentive result in a number of buildings being torn down?” he asked. “And, if so, what will happen to the buildings that are jampacked with small businesses? If this happens, what’s the advantage of putting up bigger buildings? I’m concerned. I think that if we tear down these buildings, these businesses won’t be able to survive.”

Replying to Reck’s question was Michael Levine, C.B. 1 director of planning, who earlier had outlined the complicated process that would be involved in getting final approval from the City Council for the C.W.G.’s comprehensive plan.

“We can’t answer that question tonight,” Levine said. “This is one of the assignments we would need to turn over to our consultants. We need to find out what the current job levels are and what kind of new development can they sustain.”

The Chinatown Working Group has, for the past 18 months, been preparing preliminary action plans and identifying study areas as part of the process of coming up with a comprehensive community-based plan. It has another 18 months to produce a final version.

Among the issues that are under consideration by various C.W.G. committees are: affordability; culture and historic preservation; economic development and revitalization; education and schools; immigrant affairs and social services; parks; open space and recreation; traffic; transportation; security; and zoning.

The Chinatown rezoning effort grew out of the earlier East Village/Lower East Side rezoning, which started as a community-led process, but was ultimately taken over by the city. Some community groups — particularly some in Chinatown — charged that outside developers had influence over the terms of that earlier rezoning, which was approved by the city in 2008.

In an effort to have greater community input for any future zoning actions, the area’s three community boards and Chinatown stakeholders created the C.W.G. to consider land-use rules for the greater Chinatown area.

Currently, three blocks of the Chinatown/Little Italy area — Mulberry, Mott and Elizabeth Sts. — are designated as a special purpose district. The district includes protections to safeguard noteworthy buildings and ensure that any new development is in keeping with the area’s existing character.