Rezoning plea is redoubled as Chinatown feels the heat

BY KARI LINDBERG | “What kind of Chinatown would you like to see?” The question, posed in both English and Chinese, greeted attendees at the entrance of a town hall on Sun., Aug. 20. The event was held to discuss rezoning plans for Chinatown, which, if approved by the de Blasio administration, would protect the area from the current onslaught of supertall towers and other development plans that are, even now, radically transforming the historic enclave.

A design rendering showing the planned 77-story 247 Cherry St. tower, at right, and Extell’s 80-story One Manhattan South, currently under construction, at left.
A design rendering showing the planned 77-story 247 Cherry St. tower, at right, and Extell’s 80-story One Manhattan South, currently under construction, at left.

The meeting, which drew about 75 area residents and activists, was hosted by CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, along with the Chinatown Art Brigade. The groups want to raise local awareness about the rezoning plan that has been put together by the Chinatown Working Group, a coalition of community groups and activists dedicated to fighting off development that leads to the elimination of affordable housing.

The Chinatown Working Group’s rezoning plan was rejected by City Hall last year. Carl Weisbrod, the executive director of City Planning, sent a letter last February to Gigi Li, then-chairperson of Community Board 3, saying the proposal was not sufficiently feasible. City Planning, however, has more recently expressed a willingness to reopen negotiations into rezoning the area, which could lead to new development, including additional affordable housing units, and new community amenities.

Currently, C.B. 3 and the Chinatown Working Group agree on what they want out of renewed negotiations with the Department of City Planning. Their demands include limiting new high-rise luxury development, strengthening anti-tenant harassment laws, and requiring the city to provide more affordable housing, as outlined in the C.W.G. rezoning plan.

CAAAV’s position was expressed by organizer Naved Husain.

“We need to focus on those demands and make sure that there is enough community support behind it,” he said. “It will take a massive showing from the public here in Chinatown that they support the Chinatown Working Group plan and that there will be political repercussions for the mayor, councilmembers or for anyone who opposes what the community wants. That is really what we want to start here.”

With the City Council 45-0 vote on Aug. 16 that killed a mixed-income apartment project in Inwood proposed under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing program, Chinatown grassroots organizers are starting to feel that, with enough pushback, they will be able to pressure city councilmembers, like Margaret Chin, who represents the area, to vote for their plan.

The Chinatown rezoning plan proposes capping new development at round six to 10 stories, and creating more affordable housing in line with the actual area median income of Chinatown residents. C.W.G. feels future inappropriate large-scale development in Chinatown is inevitable unless de Blasio’s affordable housing plan is modified.

“We have the most developed plan,” Husain stressed. “Now is a matter of pushing back and really making Mayor de Blasio, who is a very different mayor from Bloomberg, finally live up to some kind of credential that he claims to have.”

C.W.G.’s rezoning plan was first drafted as a direct response to protective zoning laws for the East Village and Lower East Side approved by the City Council under former Mayor Mike Bloomberg in 2008. The E.V. / L.E.S. rezoning, among other things, set height limits for new construction in a 100-block area. It was a means to help preserve the neighborhood’s character, which had been slowly eroding as a result of increased real estate development pressure, leading to out-of-scale tower developments.

However, that sweeping rezoning, by leaving out Chinatown, has — as critics accurately predicted — now simply shifted the negative impact onto Chinatown and to nearby surrounding unprotected areas, like Two Bridges, as out-of-scale towers are proliferating. Construction on the first of these so-called “supertall” tower projects — Extell’s 80-story 227 Cherry St. — has already risen to the height of the Manhattan Bridge roadway.

The City assured that the 2008 rezoning would not significantly harm the Chinatown / L.E.S. community. But a 2011 “Chinatown Then and Now” report, by Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, concluded that the rezoning, in fact, would disproportionately impact low-income and immigrant communities.

There is also concern in Chinatown about the impact of the ongoing Essex Crossing mega-development project at the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, or SPURA, site.

Speakers at the town hall meeting said development pressures, in turn, are making the neighborhood increasingly unaffordable and unlivable, and they fear they will soon be pushed out.

A Bowery resident who only gave her name as Ms. Wong, said, “When I first moved in, I only paid $600 a month for rent. Now I have to pay 1,200 monthly — a 200 percent increase. I can’t afford to live.  Before shops and restaurants would be open until midnight. Now they are all closed by 8 or 9 p.m. Everyone has left. Restaurants are no longer able to stay open as late because all their customer base has left. If this continues, within three years there will be no more Chinatown.”

According to a report last year, “State of New York City’s Housing and Neighborhoods,” by New York University’s Furman Center, the percentage change in average rent from 1990 to 2014 for the Chinatown / Lower East Side area was slightly more than 50 percent, making it the city’s most gentrified neighborhood in the past quarter century, second only to Williamsburg. The gentrification report backs up the 2010 Census’s estimated findings that at least 10,000 Chinatown Chinese residents have been displaced from the neighborhood since 2000. With the potential of gaining a 200 percent rent increase, like Wong’s, incentive for landlord harassment and eviction of low-income tenants is only growing.

At the town hall, advocates called for amending de Blasio’s affordable housing plan, which — for any new project where a rezoning is required — mandates 20 percent of units be affordable housing set aside for low-income tenants. C.W.G.’s rezoning plan, however, calls for 50 percent of all new area housing projects to be dedicated to low-income residents, in an effort to make up for the more than 9,000 units of affordable rent-regulated units that they say have been lost within the area.

In addition, the advocates noted, Chinatown’s average median income, as reported by the 2010 Census, is $32,499, leaving most area tenants actually unable to qualify for affordable housing under de Blasio’s plan. The statistic came as a shock to most of the attendees.

Speakers noted that JDS is planning a 77-story tower at 247 Cherry St., and also expressed fear that the proposed Low Line underground park could displace residents — helping speed gentrification on the Lower East Side the way the High Line has done in Chelsea.

David Tang, a resident of 90 Elizabeth St., said, “The landlords and the developers just want to make Chinatown into a more luxury community and bring gentrification into the area. The city’s current zoning plan doesn’t include quotes for affordable housing in these new luxury buildings. If we don’t fight for our future and our community, then our home will disappear forever. We need to take it back and control our own fate and not let the city make the decision for us.”