‘We need protection!’ LES/Chinatown must be rezoned, hundreds cry

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.  Photos by Yannic Rack
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. Photos by Yannic Rack

BY YANNIC RACK  |  Hundreds of protesters marched on City Hall last week to rally against the rapid change of their neighborhoods, where they say luxury developments are allowed to rise and displace longtime residents.

The demonstrators, mostly residents from the Lower East Side and Chinatown, gathered below the Manhattan Bridge on Fri., Sept. 25, to call for more protective zoning in the area.

“We have a message for Mayor de Blasio: We want our community protected now,” said David Tieu, speaking on behalf of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side. “We built this community and we will not be moved.”

The rally was held on the sidewalk of Pike St., between Cherry and Queen Sts., a carefully chosen location because a much-hated 72-story apartment tower is currently being built right next to it.

Some of the protesters held up signs proclaiming it the “Building from Hell” and blasting Extell, its developer.

Speakers at the event criticized the company for erecting a tower that will eventually dwarf the entire neighborhood and even the bridge across the street, but they also had some words for Mayor de Blasio.

Young local activists added their energy to the march and rally.
Young local activists added their energy to the march and rally.

“Our schools, our senior centers, our libraries and other programs are being cut,” Tieu said. “Yet you continue to support the 421-a tax subsidiary, which gives billions of dollars each year to luxury developers like Extell to push us out of the neighborhood we built.”

The building, which some fear will displace hundreds of longtime minority tenants from the area, was also held up as a symbol for the large-scale development that is threatening the Lower East Side and Chinatown, in general.

“They’re stealing from the poor to give to the rich,” said Louise Velez, a lifelong Lower East Sider and a member of National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, or NMASS, which is part of the coalition. “Extell has opened a can of worms.”

Another contentious topic is the smaller, 13-story building right next door to Extell’s tower, which will house affordable units but was blasted as “racist” and a “poor door” by some protesters.

The event’s main objective was to respond to the Department of City Planning’s dismissal of a rezoning plan drawn up by the Chinatown Working Group over the last seven years.

That plan calls for similar protections to the 2008 rezoning of the East Village and part of the Lower East Side, which now safeguards the area from overdevelopment with strict height limits on new buildings.

Chinatown and the Lower East Side below Grand St. were not included in the 2008 rezoning plan, and critics argue that this has driven luxury residential and hotel development into those areas, causing rents and property taxes to skyrocket.

“My constituents on the Lower East Side are being displaced from their homes. Big luxury towers are being built instead of the schools and affordable grocery store that we need,” said Jenifer Rajkumar, district leader for the 65th Assembly District, part C. She was referring to the popular Pathmark supermarket that previously served the neighborhood but was closed due to the Extell development.

“I am here today to say: Not in my district,” Rajkumar added, to loud cheers from the crowd.

The C.W.G. proposal would see the creation of five subdistricts with different zoning regulations, in order to recognize the unique characteristics of the neighborhood — including a separate area for the Lower East Side waterfront, as well as a designated Bowery corridor.

The City Planning EV / LES rezoning in 2008 was done as a means of preserving neighborhood character and discouraging luxury development, while including some upzoning for greater density to provide opportunities for affordable housing development.

C.W.G. has fought for years to cap large-scale developments in the areas left out of the plan, and to give local New York City Housing Authority residents some say on any push for “infill” development on public-housing property.

But the group’s hopes were squashed earlier this year, when City Planning dismissed their proposal, determining it “not feasible at this time.”

That comes as a disappointment to people like Shuifang Zeng, a 17-year resident on the Bowery who told the rally how her landlord has refused to make repairs and actively tried to evict people from her building since buying it, along with 10 other buildings in the area, in 2013.

“It is because Chinatown has no protection from displacement,” she said. “In 2008, the East Village rezoning plan only protected the majority white community.”

It was not just longtime residents who complained about the current situation. Jose Serrano-McClain, who showed up at the rally with his son, said he only moved to the neighborhood last month.

“I support stable communities and a future for New York City that is inclusive and integrated and hopeful. Clearly this is not creating a sense of cohesion in this neighborhood,” he said of the Extell development, where workers were doing excavation work as the protesters chanted on the sidewalk. “More than anything, it’s creating a sense of rupture. So something’s not right.”

The crowd’s real size became apparent once the procession started moving west toward City Hall, accompanied by a large police escort despite the pope’s presence Uptown.

Taking a few breaths in between chants of “Extell, go to hell” and “Lower East Side, not for sale,” Tieu, who grew up in Chinatown and now lives in Queens, said he just wanted the same protections that other communities enjoy.

“Rents are so high, and landlords are using shady tactics to push people out of their apartments,” he said. “We feel that this has to stop. Coming from a mayor who pledged to fight inequality, this is just plain ridiculous,” he said of the city’s dismissal of their zoning proposal.

The masses eventually gathered in front of City Hall Park, where frustrated residents from Harlem and Brooklyn joined in the angry rants against the mayor, delivered from a makeshift stage.

One of the marchers who had continually riled up the crowd was Michael Casiano, a graduate of New Design High School on Grand St. and a lifelong Lower East Sider. His parents immigrated from Puerto Rico and Peru more than 50 years ago, and his mother also attended the rally.

“I am here today to make sure that, if another high-rise is going to be built — whether or not we’re successful in stopping this one — that they involve the community,” he said. “We’ve been here for a long time.

“Before you come in and build stuff, come ask us. Get some feedback from the people in this community. We are the Lower East Side. We are Chinatown.”

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