Help for businesses won’t be enough, Chinatown says.

By Julie Shapiro

Volume 21, Number 43 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | March 6 – 12, 2009

Help for businesses won’t be enough, Chinatown says

City officials did not gloss over the grittier side of construction Tuesday night when they spoke to Chinatown residents about the impact of the three-year Chatham Square reconfiguration.

“We’re not here to tell you this is Disneyland,” said Dino Ng, an assistant commissioner with the city Dept. of Design and Construction. “This is construction. There is dust. There is noise. There is traffic disruption. We’re not telling you we have a solution for everything.”

But solutions were exactly what the 40 Chinatown residents who attended the meeting were looking for. They were angry that the city is moving ahead with a $50 million construction project that has very little local support, and they are afraid their small businesses and quality of life will suffer.

“No amount of compensation will compensate for the damage to the community,” said Dorothy Thom, a Chinatown resident. “This reconfiguration project is an outrage.”

Patrick Stewart, from the mayor’s office, said the city did not have all the answers yet, but he promised to continue meeting with the community as construction gets closer to starting.

Work on the seven-pronged intersection will begin this summer with the installation of a 36-inch water main and other utility upgrades in Chatham Square. Then, the city will realign the web of streets, connecting E. Broadway to Worth St. and the Bowery to St. James Pl., effectively cutting Park Row, closed after 9/11 for security reasons, out of the intersection. The final phase of the project, which will finish in 2012, will add open space to Chatham Square and a ramp along Park Row to connect Chinatown to the Civic Center.

Chinatown residents have a slew of concerns about the street realignment, which Community Board 3 articulated in a resolution passed last month. Since the realignment will not begin until at least summer 2010, the board has time to meet with the city to suggest changes.

But the focus of Tuesday’s meeting was on the city’s construction mitigation plan.

Some small businesses in Chatham Square will be eligible for grants of up to $25,000 from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., but several business owners pointed out the limitations of those grants.

“You want to help us with Pepto-Bismol when I’m having cancer in my stomach,” said Heung Tan, who owns a shop on Canal St. “It’s insufficient.”

Tan said the grant would cover only a couple months of local businesses’ rapidly rising rents, while the construction will last for years.

Several business owners also complained that the L.M.D.C. grants are only for businesses on blocks closed by construction, although businesses on nearby blocks will likely suffer as well.

Stanley Kwong, who manages the Chatham Towers parking garage, expects the construction to hurt his business. But he is not eligible for a grant because his entrance, at Worth and Mulberry Sts., is not directly affected.

“Nobody’s going to want to park in a construction site,” Kwong said. “If I lose a customer today, I can’t be sure they will come back tomorrow.”

Jan Lee, who owns an antiques shop on Mott St., also will not be eligible for the money. He wants the L.M.D.C. to expand the $5 million program and extend it beyond the current cutoff date of Dec. 31, 2010.

“When it ends, what happens?” Lee said. “This community is being asked to apply for an infinitesimally small amount of money that will end.”

Angela Rossi, director of projects and programs for the L.M.D.C., said the L.M.D.C. would look into enlarging the grant program. Since last summer, the L.M.D.C. has given out about $500,000 to small businesses below Canal St. through the program.

As angry residents shouted at city representatives, Bernadette Nation, a director with the city Dept. of Small Business Services, stood up to tell the business owners they should be grateful.

“This area is the only area [of the city] that has grant money,” she said, referring to the L.M.D.C.’s program. In other parts of the city, she said, “There are no grants to compensate businesses when capital projects are underway.”

In addition to the grant program, city officials outlined other pieces of their mitigation plan.

Robin Forst from the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center said her agency would hold regular stakeholder meetings, giving the residents a forum to raise concerns. The L.M.C.C.C. holds similar meetings for other large Downtown projects, like the Route 9A reconstruction.

Chatham Square will also have a community liaison from the city on site at all times, and at least one of the liaisons will speak Chinese, said Shane Ojar, who does community outreach for the D.D.C.

“We don’t want to put people out of business,” Ojar said. “We’re setting up the infrastructure to maintain your business for the future.”

The city will have to do some water shutoffs to replace small mains that have lead joints but will try to keep the shutoffs to a minimum, particularly in sensitive buildings like medical offices, Ojar said.

Ng, the assistant commissioner with D.D.C., promised to maintain traffic through the intersection as much as possible during the realignment by doing the work in sections.

“It’s a very tedious job,” he said.

Some residents were concerned about noisy night work, and Ng said he intended to do most work during the day, which is more efficient. However, some work will have to happen at night when there is less traffic, he said.

The next C.B. 3 meeting related to Chatham Square will focus on the open space designs. It will be held Thurs., March 12 at 6:30 p.m. at 175 E. Fourth St.