City Planning gets an earful of East Side zoning fight


By Lincoln Anderson, Albert Amateau and Laurie Mittelmann

The East Village/Lower East Side rezoning hearing went on for more than four hours at the City Planning Commission on Wednesday. Elected officials and most community groups gave their conditional support for the plan but opponents made good on their threat to mount a demonstration in front of the hearing venue at New York University’s Law School.

The community-initiated rezoning proposal is intend to preserve the character of the neighborhood, restrain the rash of oversized development and expand the opportunities for affordable housing.

But opponents, many from Chinatown, said it was a “racist” scheme that favors the white residents in the East Village. It was a charge greatly resented by Chris Kui, executive director of Asian Americans for Equality, and Rocky Chin, a Community Board 3 member, and other supporters of the rezoning at the hearing.

Speaking in favor of the rezoning were Councilmembers Rosie Mendez and Alan Gerson, but they called for amendments suggested by Community Board 3. Special oversight and enforcement protections against tenant harassment and protection against demolition of sound buildings were at the top of the list.

Many of the supporters of the plan also called for other changes to it. They want legal services to be available for low-income tenants at risk of landlord harassment, a guarantee that at least 30 percent of new residential development would be affordable housing rather than the current voluntary program that would result in an estimated 20 percent, and the affordable housing options to be available on all the wide avenues north and south of Houston St.

In addition, supporters want the zoning to encourage energy-efficient green building development. Supporters are also calling for an amended zoning code to stem the spread of bars, including the use of rear yards in residential zones even where commercial uses are allowed.

The proposed changes appeared to be suggestions and the speakers who supported them did not say they would oppose the plan if it stayed the same.

Josephine Lee, coordinator of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side — an offshoot of the Chinese Staff and Workers organization — and leader of the more than 100 protesters outside, told the commissioners they were “full of baloney” and only wanted to would kick the Chinese, Latinos and African Americans out of Chinatown, which is not part of the rezoning.

The rezoning area is bounded generally by E. 13th St. on the north, Avenue D on the east, Grand and Delancey Sts. on the south and 100 feet east of Third Ave. and Bowery on the west. The 111-block plan would cap building heights at 80 feet, or about eight stories, in most areas.

However, on three wider streets — E. Houston and Delancey Sts. and the west side of Avenue D — building heights would be capped at 120 feet, or about 12 stories, if affordable housing is included. These wider streets would allow for taller buildings under the city’s voluntary Inclusionary Zoning, or I.Z., program, which would require that 20 percent of a building’s units be affordable in order for the developer to qualify for the full height bonus. In addition, on the west side of Chrystie St., for developers voluntarily using I.Z., building heights would be permitted to be even taller — up to 145 feet.

The rezoning plan’s critics have decried the fact that much of Chinatown is not included in it, while, at the same time, taller housing is being proposed for streets in largely low-income, minority neighborhoods, such as Chrystie St. and Avenue D. Plus, rezoning the East Village and Lower East side will just shift development pressure to Chinatown, they charge.

However, according to David McWater, former chairperson of Community Board 3, because of all the opposition to it, inclusionary housing, or “I.Z.,” and taller buildings on Chrystie St. may end up not being part of the final plan, after all.

McWater has doggedly advocated for the downzoning plan over the past three years.

In addition to Chrystie St. possibly not getting tall buildings, he noted, the I.Z. option for developers recently has been added for the other wide avenues in the East Village — Second and First Aves. and Avenues A and C. However, McWater said, developers wouldn’t be able to build much taller on these avenues even if they do include I.Z. Under the rezoning, these four avenues’ floor-area ratio would go from 3.4 to 4.0; if I.Z. is included, the F.A.R. is boosted to 4.5. (The current maximum F.A.R. on those blocks for community facilities, such as school dormitories, is much larger, 6.5.)

In general, McWater said, C.B. 3 has always supported getting as much affordable housing for the district as possible.

The modifications to include more streets where I.Z. could be used were made as a result of amendments C.B. 3 submitted to City Planning on July 7. C.B. 3 asked for I.Z. on any avenue wider than 75 feet, including, for example, Essex and Allen Sts.

“My understanding is that it’s only north of Houston St. that we’re getting I.Z. on additional avenues,” said McWater in a telephone interview on Tuesday. That fact puts the lie to opponents’ charge that the rezoning is splitting the district into a “rich north” and “poor south,” he said.

McWater added that the current plan is the largest downzoning in New York City history and the third-largest rezoning ever in Manhattan. Currently, there is no height limit on development in the East Village and Lower East Side. The rezoning plan would remove the height bonus allowed under the community facilities zoning allowance.

Several local affordable housing groups, including Asian Americans for Equality, the Cooper Square Committee, Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) and Lower East Side People’s Mutual Housing Association held a news conference on Thurs., Aug. 7 in support the rezoning.

“Any attempted delay in this plan could only serve people like Donald Trump and the developers,” said Valerio Orselli of the Cooper Square Committee. “Wild West development is taking place on the Lower East Side. We believe something has to be done to preserve it. What we can do is place limits on the zoning so it’s not wild and crazy. Inclusionary zoning will allow us to bend a little bit.”

Added Damaris Reyes of GOLES: “There’s been a lot of controversy about who’s being protected. Sixty percent of people who live in the zones are of color.”

Mary Spink of the Mutual Housing Association lashed out at the plan’s detractors, saying: “It infuriates me when people work for years to better the community and garbage is thrown in their faces.”

However, Wing Lam, head of Chinese Staff Workers, slammed the news conference participants.

“They’re poverty pimps,” he said of AAFE, GOLES, Cooper Square Committee and L.E.S.P.M.H.A. “They don’t do no good for the people. Look at AAFE — they’re like Donald Trump in Chinatown.”

Allowing 145-foot-tall buildings on Chrystie St. while other streets have lower height caps is unfair, he said.

“How can you put a plan like that on the Chinese?” he asked. “Only white [people] like low buildings and sunlight and Chinese don’t like low buildings and sunlight? We don’t like tall buildings.”

By the same token, Lam said, putting I.Z. across from the Avenue D projects, which are heavily Latino, also smacks of “racism.” Lam also said that because the rezoning doesn’t include the housing projects east of Avenue D they are being put at risk of privatization. But McWater said rezoning wouldn’t protect them from being sold, anyway, and that because they are 14 stories tall, including them would have raised the rezoning area’s height cap, under a formula City Planning uses.

“The big concern we got from City Planning is to put affordable housing on what they would call ‘white blocks,’” McWater said, referring to I.Z. being added to Second and First Aves. and Avenue A. “The Chrystie St. I.Z. had nothing to do with it being Chinatown: It was suggested that Chinatown could use more affordable housing, and Chrystie St. was extra-wide. And the idea is that if you put a 12-story building on Avenue D, it’s more contextual than Avenue A.”

McWater noted that City Planning wouldn’t allow the rezoning to include any areas west of Third Ave. He added that “white people” who were protesting construction of New York University’s new dorm on the former St. Ann’s Church site on E. 12th St. wanted their block included in the rezoning, too, but were also rejected, since the site is too far west of Third Ave.

McWater said allowing 145-foot-tall buildings on Chrystie St. would translate into more total units than were they 120-foot-tall buildings, and, thus, more permanent affordable units, based on the 20 percent I.Z. formula.

The former C.B. 3 chairperson said the board, in 2006, supported the 145-foot height cap for Chrystie St. after receiving a memo in support of it from the Rebuild Chinatown Initiative, which was founded by AAFE. However, McWater said the coalition supporting affordable housing on Chrystie St. is “much broader” than the opposing coalition, which he called little more than a spin-off of Chinese Staff and Workers.

“Since all this nonsense,” McWater said, referring to the opponents’ protests that have disrupted C.B. 3 meetings, “we’ve backed off on Chrystie St. — and I don’t think it will be part of the final plan.”

McWater advised that if Lam and Chinese Staff and Workers want a rezoning for the rest of Chinatown, they better start working on it in earnest now: The East Village/Lower East Side rezoning plan will be approved by the City Council by the end of November, and Lam will lose his “leverage” if he doesn’t act by then, McWater said.

Noting the uniform land use review procedure, or ULURP, for the rezoning is a long process, Councilmember Gerson said, “We still have weeks and months of negotiations ahead of us.”

Speaking of public reviews, McWater is incredulous that Lam and his allies continue to claim the rezoning plan was a “secret plan.”

“There were town hall meetings on the rezoning by former Councilmember Margarita Lopez and Borough President Scott Stringer…a standing-room-only hearing,” McWater said. “If you Google me, 93 percent of my hits — I don’t know, a lot — are about rezoning. Chinese papers covered it, The Villager covered it, The Village Voice covered it, the Daily News covered it, NY 1 covered it… It’s just impossible to say people didn’t know about it.”

Echoed Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, “The plan was developed through three years of hearings through a very public and inclusive process. Not everyone is happy with every part of the plan — and I’m not, either — but I think it’s undeniable that every segment of the public was given an opportunity to participate. I don’t know, but I think there is a lot of misinformation out there.”

As for Stringer, on Monday he came out in favor of the rezoning.

Beyond Chinese Staff and Workers, the East Village/Lower East Side rezoning has become a touchstone for local antigentrification activists, as well. At a book-launch party for Q. Sakamaki’s photo book on the explosive Tompkins Square Park scene of the late 1980s, held at Bluestockings bookstore on Allen St., last week, Sakamaki asked audience members to share their thoughts; the rezoning came up repeatedly.

Referring to a man who was arrested at a C.B. 3 meeting in May for vociferously protesting the rezoning, local journalist Bill Weinberg, speaking at Sakamaki’s event, told the audience it was inspiring to him.

“Hopefully,” he said, “we can see some kind of spirit of resistance rekindled in this neighborhood — before it’s too late.”

As for AAFE’s Kui, he brushed off Lam’s barbs and said Chinatown must press on to address “the real issues.”

“Rather than dignifying these unwarranted personal attacks with a response that diverts attention from the real issues,” Kui said, “we need to focus our energies to preserving our neighborhoods from gentrification and fighting for more affordable housing for the community.”