With thousands of new apartments and people heading to the burgeoning Two Bridges neighborhood, nearby Chinatown may need to embrace change that’s coming in order to survive.
One of the last ungentrified neighborhoods in Manhattan, the fragile Chinatown economy has never fully recovered from a succession of economic blows and the 9/11 tragedy.
Wellington Chen, the executive director for the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation, said he’s eager to see those new people living in the Two Bridges towers spend their money in Chinatown.
“I would implore people to support Chinatown and come in and eat,” Chen said. “We alone cannot eat fast enough, so we need more stomachs to come into Chinatown.”
Chen explained that Chinatown has long upheld its reputation for cheap and delicious food, but the times are changing.
He said restaurants are facing higher expenses, including stateʼs minimum wage increases for workers, and would welcome more customers to cover the greater cost of doing business.
He would even support more office developments coming into the neighborhood as they bring in more foot traffic than residential developments.
While he acknowledged that Chinatown has traditionally been insular, Chen said the area needs to break out of its habits to survive by readily welcoming these new neighbors.
“Chinatown right now needs foot traffic and it needs people with stomachs,” Chen said. “And we’re not surrendering Chinatown just because someone came in to eat, the Chinatown core are still holding true to what it is.”
Chinatown, a neighborhood known for its cheap eats and mom and pop shops, has already seen considerable transformation.
The area is home to many more dessert options and trendy shops that have replaced its existing retail stock. And major chains, such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, have already planted themselves nearby the core Chinatown area.
On top of the retail shift, four major developments are coming to the South Street waterfront by the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, which will add thousands of residents to the neighborhood.
When it opens next year, Extell Development’s One Manhattan Square have 815 apartments and 205 affordable rentals in a separate adjacent structure. Blocks away, JDS Development is working on 247 Cherry Street, which will bring 660 units; Starrett Development has proposed a 732-unit building at 259 Clinton Street and; CIM Group and L+M Development Partners have revealed plans of a two-tower
property at 260 South Street with 1,350 apartments.
While One Manhattan Square is finishing construction, the other three are still in the planning phase and have faced community opposition.
Natalia Padilla, a lifelong resident of Chinatown and broker with Citi Habitats, said she’s already seen the area transitioning. Like most emerging neighborhoods, she’s seen the benchmark retailers come, including Trader Joe’s and Target at 400 Grand Street and various Starbucks in and around Chinatown.
As a broker, she said she’s seen more new faces in the area coming from trendy neighborhoods like Williamsburg or further north from the Lower East Side.
“Do I feel like my whole neighborhood has changed and pushed me out, no,” Padilla said. “But it’s a little fresher and it’s not just tourists and locals, but a more diverse mix of people from different cultures and ages.”
Adelaide Polsinelli, vice chair at Compass, believes that new retail and developments will impact Chinatown.
“Influencers like Trader Joe’s will usher in the next wave of retailers who will service an in-place audience of new homeowners and renters,” Polsinelli said. “The new developments will enhance the existing Chinatown experience and culture, not displace it.”
Polsinelli added that she hopes the new demographic will merge with the existing one in Chinatown to create a unique mix that will attract new dining and retail opportunities.
And there are others hoping that the new development will bolster Chinatown with more foot traffic.
Padilla offered a different insight into the future of Chinatown. In the past, Chinatown experienced a business boom and took over surrounding neighborhoods. But as new market-rate residents move in and the demographic shifts, she expects Chinatown will be hit with a “reality check” and decrease in size.
“Chinatown was like a cup overflowing because it took over Little Italy and Two Bridges a little bit,” Padilla said. “So, I think it’s going to be smaller, but I don’t think it’s going to become extinct because it’s still Chinatown.”
There is unilateral concern that the new residents might not embrace Chinatown and its shops and restaurants.
“Maybe the people who will live in these buildings may not be coming to shop in the local area because it’s a different spectrum of the market,” Chen said. “It’s a different segment of society, but the few who are wealthy and coming here are not going to chase out all the buildings and the merchants.”
Louis Adler, co-founder and principal at the Real NY brokerage, said Chinatown has steadily been adapting with more nightlife options and galleries opening up.
In his ten years working in the neighborhood, Adler said he’s seeing a younger demographic similar to the rest of the Lower East Side start looking into Chinatown.
But for the new luxury development, the demographic it’s serving might not even be interested in Chinatown, Adler said.
“When it comes to the Extell Development, that’s where you’re going to see residents Ubering in and out of the building,” Adler said. “They’re not going to be the clientele that’ll be filtering into the neighborhood, they’re the ones who appreciate their building’s views, the amenities and Uber in and out.”
Adler said there’s a possibility Chinatown’s retail will become more attractive and capture that new audience, but it’s yet to be seen. Chen warned that if Chinatown doesn’t adapt to this new market, the whole demographic may simply hop onto the FDR Drive and shop at other, trendier, neighborhoods.
“What people don’t remember is that people can get on and get off your bus if they find a better opportunity,” Chen said of Chinatown. “The question is ,if you want people to stay on your bus you have to remain very vibrant but you also need to open up and be more inclusive.”