By Roland Li
Chinatown is one of the last ethnic communities in Manhattan, sustained, but also isolated, by a self-enclosed economy. But some residents fear that the area will soon be unrecognizable, transformed by the relentless forces of development. They seek to protect it with a rezoning plan that will ensure the survival of affordable housing and local businesses, but the process has been tense, as varying interests clash in attempts to find common ground.
Although a final rezoning plan is months, perhaps years away, changes in the area have already confirmed the power of the twin laws of zoning and capitalism, forces that define the entire city. And regardless of the final result, it is clear that Chinatown will never be able to return to a state of complete detachment, an island in a sea of towers.
According to data from the 2005-2009 American Community Survey, 63% of Chinatown’s population is composed of Chinese immigrants. Nearly 60,000 Asian residents live in Community District 3, which includes Chinatown and the East Village, making up 35% of the district’s population. Census data for 2010, to be released within weeks, is expected the confirm similar results.
Peter Kwong, a professor of Asian American Studies and Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College and author of numerous books on Chinatown, said that while the local population increased tremendously in the 1980s and 1990s, the last decade has seen a leveling off, as more Chinese immigrants move to Flushing and Sunset Park, even as new immigrants move to the area. Kwong cites increasing rents and real estate speculation as a threat to both residential tenants and local businesses.
“You are reaching the saturation point,” he said. “If the rents keep going up and there’s uncertainty, it’s going to suffocate it.”
From the beginning, Chinatown was a unique community, said Kwong. Chinese immigrants saw it as a permanent home, rather than the first step in assimilation into American culture, while the Irish and Italians of the early 1900s used their first dwellings as springboards into mainstream jobs and housing. In contrast, three generations of Chinese could – and still do – live under one roof. That’s not to say that some the offspring of immigrants haven’t moved to the suburbs, or wealthier areas in Manhattan, but thousands of immigrants never learn English and stay in the same apartment for decades.
“Once you make that choice, you’re likely to stay here for a long, long time,” said Kwong.
Such a lifestyle is possible because of a vibrant local economy, traditionally built on the twin pillars of restaurants and manufacturing. But living conditions are challenging, with local workers often earning less than minimum wage, and recent years have seen a decline in the manufacturing sector throughout the city. The attacks of Sept. 11 also hurt the local economy, and part of Park Row, once a crucial artery into the Financial District, remains closed for security reasons.
While Chinatown’s structure has allowed residents to live without leaving its borders, it also led many residents to shun city politics. But recent years have seen a greater presence of Asians in the voting booth, with the election of the local City Council member Margaret Chin, an immigrant from Hong Kong. And City Comptroller John Liu, a former councilman from Flushing and immigrant from Taiwan, would become the first Asian-American to be elected to citywide office in 2009.
But some residents feel that the area is still underrepresented, and the sentiment exploded in 2008, when the city rezoned the East Village and Lower East Side. According to news reports at the time, local residents from Chinatown attended Community Board 3 rezoning meetings, not to submit feedback, but rather to declare the rezoning racist and exclusionary because it did not include Chinatown.
More charges of racism were hurled when Community Board 3 officials said that Spanish and Chinese translators were not available because of lack of funding. Protests followed, and later, local groups would file a lawsuit to annul City Planning’s draft environmental impact statement, saying it was inaccurate and calling for additional studies.
But the rezoning moved forward and was finalized in November 2008, with City Planning enacting height limitations on many midblock streets. Some wider streets, such as Delancey Street, East Houston and Chrystie Street, allow taller buildings up to 120 feet.
The Chinatown Working Group was created in the wake of the East Village rezoning, in hopes of facilitating a community plan for rezoning Chinatown, which would eventually be submitted to the city through a 197-a plan, sponsored by a community board or elected official. (A spokeswoman for City Planning said that while no Chinatown application has yet been filed, it is open to community residents and stakeholders who want to discuss the area’s future.)
The Working Group is not a city agency or community board entity, but rather a partnership of around 50 local groups that have voting power, along with non-voting stakeholders. It reflects the diversity of the community, but also the tense and polarized relationship immigrants, activists, business representatives and developers.
Less controversial plans on immigration and education services, open space and parks are being finalized, and the Working Group is preparing to submit them to city agencies that include the Parks Department and Department of Education.
But rezoning has, as always, proved to be a protracted issue. Last fall, there was talk of hiring a land use consultant to aid the group, but the motion appears to have been put on indefinite hold, as the Working Group grapples with divergent zoning proposals.
“Zoning becomes the lynchpin of whatever ultimate plan we have,” said Michael Levine, director and land use and planning at Community Board 1, which represents Lower Manhattan, and the board’s representative at the Working Group.
As the economy recovers and lending resumes, some fear that the threat of development will materialize before a zoning plan moves forward.
“I think we need to take advantage in the slowdown in the market now,” said Levine, “and be ready for the next phase of development.”
“I don’t see a major threat now,” he said, but added, “It truly is a threat and it will come back.”
Some members believe that recent changes in leadership have lead to more delays. Former co-chairs Jim Solomon and Thomas Yu, who had led the Working Group since its inception for over two years, declined to accept nominations for re-election last fall, and Gigi Li, from Community Board 3, and Mae Lee of the Chinese Progressive Association, were elected as interim co-chairs. The Working Group plans to revisit the leadership structure in its next full meeting in April, as well as membership structure.
The tension between acting quickly and having a democratic process has been challenging.
“We don’t want to be left behind. But on the other hand, we have to have this process,” said Lee, one of the co-chairs of the Working Group.
Currently, the most comprehensive rezoning plan comes from the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and Lower East Side, which includes around a dozen local community groups, including many opponents of the East Village rezoning. Although they boycotted the Working Group during its first year of existence, they have since joined.
In the first week of March, local residents gathered in the East Market Restaurant on East Broadway to hear the Coalition‘s new zoning proposal, amidst cups of tea and traditional Chinese cuisine.
The effort was part seminar, part rally. The Coalition sought to educate local residents about the intricacies of land use, and what it considers the looming threat of development, while also inspiring them to get involved.
Wah Lee of the Coalition brandished a pointer and addressed the crowd in Mandarin, weaving fiery calls for unity and action alongside zoning diagrams.
The Coalition’s plan focuses on four areas: the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) “superblocks” near the East River, the core of Chinatown, and a chunk of the Lower East Side between Houston and Delancey Street that was rezoned in 2008. Additionally, the group supports community proposals for the East River Waterfront.
“This is a community plan,” said Brian Paul, a Hunter College research fellow, who prepared the report.
The NYCHA area includes is vulnerable to development because of a combination of low density and wide, open lots, according to the Coalition.
At NYCHA’s Smith Houses at 21 St. James Place, for example, the Coalition says that an additional 1,600 new apartments could be built, if the land was sold to a developer.
A spokeswoman for NYCHA said that an internal planning study showed that Smith Houses had approximately 0.98 million s/f of development potential. However, no proposals to sell were being consideed, and any deals are presented to NYCHA residents, elected officials and community boards.
The Coalition calls for all new developments built on NYCHA land to be 100% affordable housing and wants to require additional public review of all new developments on such property.
But the NYCHA spokeswoman said that public-private partnerships with developers were necessary to gain financing for new projects.
“You still need development money,” she said. “We are looking at places where there is a need, and we can be doing more.”
Zella Jones, vice chair of the economic development team at the Working Group, believes the issue of affordable housing is entwined with the availability of jobs.
She prepared a report that called for the creation of business incubators, and recent efforts to create a Business Improvement District, which charge dues from local businesses to fund efforts including street cleaning, have moved forward. But Jones said that affordable housing advocates have dominated the debate, rejecting even modest commercial initiatives.
“Right now, it is a totally polarizing conversation,” said Jones. “We’re at a total standstill right now.”
Elected officials are in favor of preserving local housing.
“Rent regulation is one of the most important ways that we protect affordable housing. Neighborhoods all across New York City are diversifying and attracting new residents and interest. It is our job to ensure that that long-time residents, working families, and seniors have the capacity to direct and influence these changes – not be victimized by them,” said Margaret Chin, the local city councilwoman.
In the core of Chinatown, bounded by Canal Street in the north, Centre Street to the west, Brooklyn Bridge to the south and the East River to the West, the Coalition cites 31 empty parcels, parking lots, and currently stalled construction sites, along with 72 “developable” smaller buildings not built to the maximum density.
The solution, the Coalition says, is to have a site-by-site review process that allows for higher density development with affordable housing, based on the median neighborhood income of $35,000. The Coalition also calls for a neighborhood commercial district that would require large chain retailers to apply for special permits, a system currently used in San Francisco, and protection for manufacturing buildings.
The Coalition also wants to revisit large commercial streets including Chrystie and Houston that were rezoned in 2008, in hopes of limiting heights.
Another group, Two Bridges, is preparing a report, to be submitted within a month and supporting inclusionary housing, in which market rate apartments finance affordable units.
But the Coalition believes that inclusionary housing, which is designed to provide affordable apartments, has actually accelerated gentrification by giving zoning bonuses for high rise towers that are 80% market-rate. They cite Greenpoint and Harlem as examples of neighborhoods where more displacement has occurred in the wake of such politices.
The Coalition has also criticized previous proposals by Two Bridges for omitting many areas that it considers crucial, including the NYCHA sites, Delancey Street to Houston Street and lots under 5,000 s/f.
Officials at Two Bridges and its land use consultant, Richard Weber, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The area that is now Chinatown was originally the first African Village in New Amsterdam. It would later become the notorious Five Points neighborhood and site of some of the first apartment buildings in the cities.
By the late 1800s, a huge influx of Eastern European immigrants would swell the entire city, eventually making New York the third-largest German city after Vienna and Berlin near the turn of the 20th century.
Rob Hollander, a non-voting member of the Working Group‘s preservation team, believes that creating a historic district is an option for reining in development and preserving housing.
Last week, the team called for a large historic district in the heart of Chinatown, excluding Little Italy, which has existing protective zoning, and Division Street and East Broadway, which business representatives classified as vital commercial streets that should not be landmarked.
“I would like to distinguish those who live in the community and those who prey on the community.” said Hollander.
As part of the designation, a fund would be established to assist business owners and landlords in maintaining their buildings to meet a historic district standard.
Preservationists are intrigued. “I think it’s a fascinating idea,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council. “I think there’s a lot that’s worthy of preservation.” But he said that smaller districts might be feasible, and wasn’t optimistic about the chances of a fund.
Already, some luxury buildings are moving towards completion in the area, and developers have pushed for upzoning along Canal Street.
Officials at Edison Properties, a member of the Working Group, declined to comment. A broker at ABS Properties, which had previously called for the “maximum density” in Chinatown, said the company’s focus at moved to other neighborhoods since last year and declined to comment.
At 60 Orchard Street, prices start at $1.25 million for two bedrooms and two bathrooms. A contract has been signed for one unit, and contracts are out for two other units, said Susan Wires, a senior vice president of Stribling & Associates, the broker for the building.
But the building has only seven units, and Wires doesn’t see it as a herald of overdevelopment in the area. “I think it’s actually kind of difficult for developers to look into Chinatown,” she said. “A lot of the buildings are owned.”
Joe Lui, a senior associate at Citi Habitats who has lived in Chinatown for 19 years, said there were only 14 rental apartments in Chinatown available in the brokerage’s database. The vacancy rate is around 1%, and while the downturn saw discounts in rents, Lui said that new leases have increased. On average, the apartments rent for around $2,200 per month for a two bedroom, and go as high as $5,000, he said.
Lui praises the Wyndham Hotel, a glassy 18-story hotel with 108 rooms that is under construction, which replaced the four-story Music Palace at 91-93 Bowery, the only movie theater in Chinatown. “In long term, it should increase the value of the area in a good way,” he said.
But during construction, nearby apartment buildings including 128 Hester Street became structurally unsound and residents were forced to evacuate, with around 60 tenants displaced. The tenants subsequently sued developer William Su, the owner of both the hotel and 128 Hester, winning$900,000 in a judgment last year.
It was a rallying cry for the area, and another reason for residents to fight.
“A lot of people are quite defeatist. They say, ‘Why are you wasting your time? Chinatown is going to be gentrified,’” said Kwong, the Hunter professor and author. “But the human issue should be the primary issue.”