De Blasio’s L.E.S. / Chinatown tale of two cities

Photo by Yannic Rack At a march on City Hall in late September, protesters held up signs of the “Building From Hell,” Extell’s planned high-rise that has become a symbol of overdevelopment in the Lower East Side and Chinatown.
Photo by Yannic Rack
At a march on City Hall in late September, protesters held up signs of the “Building From Hell,” Extell’s planned high-rise that has become a symbol of overdevelopment in the Lower East Side and Chinatown.

BY DIEM BOYD  |  The time Mayor de Blasio has spent raising his national profile as champion of progressive economic policies and populism in places like Puerto Rico, Nebraska and Wisconsin, is time away from improving the lives of everyday New Yorkers.

His focus should remain here, on the millions of low- and middle-income New Yorkers who face forced displacement due to concessions and incentives extended to developers. This is a continuation of Bloomberg-era developer giveaways that spurred a frenzy of luxury condo development, triggering the domino-like effect of destabilizing gentrification, depletion of affordable housing stock, the closure of small, independent businesses, and a rate of homelessness not seen since the Great Depression.

While New York City has the second-largest millionaire and largest billionaire population of any global city, the city’s poverty rate is 6.5 points higher than the national average. New York has become the “capital of inequality,” a tale of two cities, indeed, where the abject poor and the working middle and lower class have not benefitted from the economic recovery experienced by the top 5 percent of the wealthiest New Yorkers. Maybe it’s time our mayor tended his own garden?

In 2013, de Blasio galvanized the progressive base with stump speeches about New York City’s growing economic inequality. We came to the polls, delivering him a decisive victory,  invigorated by his message to end the economic policies of his predecessors that favored the wealthy and to reform a lopsided criminal justice system that preys upon poor and low-income New Yorkers. We shared his outrage that one in three of the city’s children live in poverty while those individuals at the top of the economic ladder have seen incomes skyrocket.

Twice this fall, 1,000 community members from the Lower East Side and Chinatown have marched on City Hall, demanding that Mayor de Blasio take a stand against the displacement of working middle- and lower-class families and people of color by supporting the Chinatown Working Group Rezoning Plan. Most recently, on Oct. 28,  seniors, mothers with infants, college students, school-age children and workers, marched together in a torrential rain, determined that the mayor hear them.

They asked for the fulfillment of City Hall’s promise for equal protection after their neighborhoods were excluded from the 2008 East Village / Lower East Side rezoning — a process that gave contextual zoning protections to the relatively wealthier areas of Community Board 3, pushing grossly disproportionate luxury and commercial development into Chinatown and select parts of the Lower East Side.

Without zoning protections, mass displacement accelerated, with the Latino, African-American and Asian communities being hardest hit. Evictions on the Lower East Side and Chinatown have increased at an unprecedented rate at the hands of real estate-friendly giveaways and predatory landlords. Small businesses, mom-and-pop stores and services have been uprooted, replaced by businesses and services that cater to the new wealthier residents, droves of disruptive weekend transients and tourists.

By failing to take a stand on the Lower East Side and Chinatown, Mayor de Blasio is capitulating to developers like Extell, which plans to build an 80-story gated community, One Manhattan Square, in the middle of a public housing complex on the L.E.S. waterfront. The development includes a 13-story segregated “poor door” building, shabbily diminutive next to the behemoth of privilege. Beyond the discriminatory and unequal housing practice, in reality, the minimal “affordable” housing will be unattainable for most low- and middle-income area residents.

Further ensuring that this “tale of two cities” is fact, not fiction, Extell is marketing One Manhattan Square as a real estate investment to affluent overseas buyers who will live part-time, if at all, in the towering monolith. In place of the Lower East Side and Chinatown’s vibrant ethnically and culturally diverse communities will be a ghost town of investor properties and a theme park of $65 “Basquiat burgers” and $18 “Mr. Purple” cocktails catering to those living in the gated fortresses.

Over the past seven years, the community, with broad support, drafted a comprehensive and sensible rezoning plan to protect and preserve Chinatown and the Lower East Side from privatization of city-owned properties and displacement and harassment of tenants. More than 10,000 individuals signed petitions in support of the plan that was adopted by the Chinatown Working Group.

Unfortunately, the Mayor’s City Planning Commission reviewed this plan with tepid courtesy and then decided it to be too “far reaching” and “ambitious.” Yet, Mayor de Blasio is steamrolling a broad, massive rezoning of the entire city under the misnomers of “Zoning for Quality and Affordability” and “Mandatory Inclusionary Honing.”

Who is being too ambitious and far reaching now?

De Blasio campaigned on a promise to be different than Bloomberg, whose policies and projects advanced the interests of the wealthy elite, leaving the rest of New Yorkers behind. De Blasio vowed to listen to the very people who were ignored when Bloomberg rezoned one-third of the city, unilaterally targeting 122 neighborhoods. This massive rezoning was a Trojan horse for gentrification, transforming working- and middle-class districts into sought-after, affluent neighborhoods that priced out low- and middle-income residents.

The difference between the two mayors is hard to distinguish when de Blasio continues to privatize the New York City Housing Authority. And his reforms to the 421-tax abatement plan — which he vowed to eliminate — remain developer-friendly, while netting insignificant affordable housing in exchange for substantial developer tax breaks. This is precisely why the Real Estate Board of New York applauded de Blasio’s concessions and developers rushed to file unprecedented numbers of new high-end construction permits this past year.

In describing why so many Democrats lost in the 2014 midterm elections, de Blasio said they “lost sight of their core principles, opting instead to clip their progressive wings.” But do those same words apply to him?

It would seem so. For example, nothing shows how similar de Blasio is to Bloomberg more than the former’s digging in and ramming his pro-real-estate citywide rezoning plan down communities’ throats, despite overwhelming opposition by constituents, housing activists and community boards.

By embracing a sweeping upzoning that will irrevocably recontextualize the cityscape — that might even put Robert Moses to shame — in exchange for “inclusionary zoning” of 25 percent to 30 percent affordability, de Blasio aligns himself with Bloomberg and wealthy real estate interests, rather than with classic New York liberals, like Mayors La Guardia, Dinkins, Koch in his earlier years or even the liberal Republican Mayor John Lindsay.

Under de Blasio’s plan, the rapid sprawl of gilded glass towers piercing the skyline will rob everyday New Yorkers of affordability, history, sunlight and perhaps most important, their precious sense of community and neighborhoods.

A comprehensive citywide affordable housing plan is long overdue, but de Blasio’s proposal is disproportionately favorable to luxury developers. A community-led rezoning, like the Chinatown Working Group Rezoning Plan, is clearly the sensible alternative.

There is no better opportunity for Mayor de Blasio to prove his mettle than at the upcoming town hall meeting, hosted by the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, on Sat., Dec. 5, at 4 p.m., at Seward Park High School, at 350 Grand St. He can face the people on the front line of displacement, seeing first-hand how “inclusionary” zoning and sky-high development have devastated the Lower East Side and Chinatown in the name of “affordability” and “progress.”

This all begs the question, Mayor de Blasio — are you a true beacon of the new left, like Sanders and Warren, or just another right-leaning centrist, bought by big real estate interests, cloaked in progressive rhetoric?

Boyd is founder, LES Dwellers