Rezoning opponents join effort to shape new Chinatown plan


By Albert Amateau

The Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, which for the past two years has opposed city-supported zoning initiatives, last week decided to join the Chinatown Working Group in the community-led effort to craft a plan for future development in the two neighborhoods.

Representatives of two members of the coalition, the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops (NMASS) and the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, said on Monday that the coalition reversed its position because the working group has agreed to include proportional representation of the two neighborhoods, which are 90 percent low-income residents, mostly Chinese, Latino and African-American.

However, a co-chairperson of the working group said it is still operating under the same guidelines as before — namely, that each member organization in the working group gets one vote.

The coalition also includes the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development and other groups that bitterly opposed the East Village/Lower East Side rezoning plan approved in 2008.

The rezoning effort grew out of the earlier East Village/Lower East Side rezoning, which, toward the end of the process, met with some heated community opposition before its approval two years ago. In response, the local community boards and Chinatown stakeholders created the Chinatown Working Group to consider land-use rules for Chinatown.

The working group, made up of representatives of Community Boards 1, 2 and 3 and more than 40 neighborhood organizations, hopes to present a proposed preliminary action plan and study area in April. In turn, the three community boards will be holding public hearings on the proposed plan over the next several months. By early summer, the working group, in conjunction with the community boards, hopes to present a 197A community-based land-use plan to the City Planning Commission, said Jim Solomon, a Community 2 member and co-chairperson of the working group.

Coalition members are proposing that the Chinatown rezoning plan study area be bounded by E. Houston St. on the north, the Brooklyn Bridge on the south, Centre St. and Bowery on the west, and the East River on the east. The coalition’s proposed study area overlaps the southern part of the 2008 East Village/Lower East Side rezoning area. The coalition also says that the study area should include the strip between Avenue D and the East River from E. Houston St. to E. 14th St., within which the Lillian Wald and Jacob Riis Housing Authority developments are located and which was excluded from the 2008 rezoning.

“We decided to work with the Chinatown Working Group because the study area now includes the Lower East Side,” said Yolanda Donato, a community member of NMASS. “Since the 2008 East Village/L.E.S. rezoning, we’ve seen big increases in people being forced out, pushed out and priced out.”

But Solomon made a point of stressing that the working group is still developing its study area, and that its boundaries of haven’t been finalized yet.

“The study area may include the Lower East Side,” he said, “but it’s yet to be determined by the full Chinatown Working Group.”

“We feel that downzoning is what this community needs,” said Michael Lalan, an NMASS volunteer. “Developers can build 30-story luxury towers. Current zoning allows ridiculously unfettered development.”

Some small businesses have seen their rents triple in the past couple of years, said JoAnn Lun, NMASS executive director.

“We’ve finally been recognized,” said Norma Ramirez, a former Lower East Side Democratic district leader and an NMASS supporter, referring to the Chinatown Working Group’s agreement to give community members a role in the planning. “We have the door open. It will take a lot more work,” Ramirez said.

NMASS intends to submit a plan that focuses on downzoning at the April 5 Chinatown Working Group meeting. Four working teams within the working group, one covering affordability, preservation and zoning, another focusing on economics and transportation, a third on parks, and a fourth on schools, will present aspects of the preliminary action plan and proposed study area on April 5, Solomon said on Monday. Each working team will present its own proposed study area; the working group will then reconcile the teams’ ideas, coming up with a single, proposed study area, Solomon said.

“The working group has always been an open, transparent, democratic planning body,” he said, noting that each of the 45 organizations in the working group has one vote. “Everyone has always been welcome and we’re encouraged that NMASS has agreed to become a voting member,” he said.

Nevertheless, Josephine Lee, of the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, said later on Monday that an organization representing a single developer should not have the same weight as a group representing many members.

“We had a meeting with Jim Solomon last week and agreed to work out the details of the representation,” Lee said.

Solomon reiterated, “The Working Group is based on one vote per group — and we encourage a broad cross-section of the community to participate.”