Anger Over Mayor’s Reaction to Chinatown Rezoning Push

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Protesters on Wednesday had harsh words for the mayor, and claimed their neighborhood was being denied the protections afforded to others.

Adi Talwar

Protesters on Wednesday had harsh words for the mayor, and claimed their neighborhood was being denied the protections afforded to others.

Over 110 residents of Chinatown, the Lower East Side, the South Bronx, East Harlem, Tribeca, Sunset Park and Sunnyside rallied at City Hall on Wednesday to protest Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing plan, with many calling on the mayor to step down.

The Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side has been organizing monthly protests to denounce the mayor for refusing to adopt the entirety of the Chinatown Working Group’s 2013 plan for Chinatown and the Lower East Side, which organizers say could have protected residents from increasingly rampant displacement.

“High rents and real estate taxes make businesses harder to continue and then jobs are lost. If such trend continues, we will no longer afford to live and work here,” said Ah Liang, a resident of Chinatown. “[Mayor de Blasio] said our fight for the same protections at the East Village [were] too ambitious, and at the same time he allows luxury developments to conquer and destroy our community.”

The plan, the outcome of more than five years of meetings that included over 50 community groups, aims to preserve the character and affordability of the area for its working-class immigrant population. It recommends upzoning some areas while stipulating affordable housing requirements that exceed current city standards, placing height limits on significant parts of the neighborhood as had been done in the East Village in 2008, and creating a special district with a variety of anti-displacement strategies.

The administration has repeatedly said that the plan is too expansive to implement. In September, the agency announced it would work with local elected officials and a steering committee of community partners to launch a study focused only on Chinatown, though borders have not yet been specified. Other parts of the Working Group plan, they suggested, might be considered in future years.

But coalition members note that similar promises were made following the downzoning of the East Village, and say they will not accept a rezoning that benefits Chinatown to the exclusion of the Black and Latino community along the waterfront.

“A racist rezoning is just as bad as no rezoning in our eyes,” says David Tieu, an organizer with the Coalition, adding that without a rezoning to control development in other parts of the area, even Chinatown will be vulnerable to displacement pressures. In the past, the Department of City Planning has rejected accusations that zoning policy is driven by preferences to specific races or ethnicities.

Others attended the rally to protest the mayor’s plans to upzone low-income communities of color like East Harlem and the Bronx’s Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, as well as gentrification in the South Bronx that they say have happened concurrent to city investment in those areas. A representative from the Tribeca Trust and Community Gardens Coalition expressed support for Chinatown’s plan and concern about the city’s plans to sell public property in Tribeca to a developer, while an organizer from Sunset Park said they feared the neighborhood would be the next low-income community targeted for a rezoning, as well as affected by the potential rezoning of Gowanus.

“You came in sheep’s clothing to us and now you are selling our community out,” said Javier Nieves, the director of La Casita Comunal de Sunset Park, referring to de Blasio’s progressive campaign. He said the administration should focus on creating deeply affordable housing for the extremely poor. “Put aside this whole affordable housing plan and start from scratch.”

Arguing that the housing created by planned rezonings—even the rent-restricted units—wouldn’t be affordable to native residents, protestors frequently compared their fight against displacement to the battle at Standing Rock.

“When has the plan of a capitalist ever done the indigenous people good?” said Agnes Johnson of the South Bronx Community Congress, referring to a prior Bloomberg rezoning and mayor de Blasio’s future rezoning plans. “I hope that we will find the same veterans that came to North Dakota to come and protect us.”

Chinatown plan writers question DCP’s claims

The Department of City Planning has offered many reasons for why the Chinatown Working Group’s entire plan is too expansive. One year ago, they argued that there wasn’t a clear community consensus around the plan. They’ve also said the geographic size of the proposed rezoning is too large, and that the plan involves too many planning issues, from the creation of an anti-harassment district to the adoption of a new special permitting process for the development of NYCHA property. In addition, they’ve said that for such a complicated district, the plan is not nuanced enough on a block-by-block level. Finally, they’ve argued that the affordable housing requirements proposed in the plan are unrealistic, and that the preservation parts of the plan would stymie housing development too much.

In the past year, Community Board 3 has reached a consensus, approving each subdistrict of the plan, but DCP still contends that the area involves too many constituencies. Eva Hanhardt, a Pratt Center planner who helped write the plan, finds this strange because, she says, “it isn’t as if there weren’t stakeholders from across the board participating.”

It’s true that the Chinatown Working Group’s rezoning area is larger than other de Blasio rezonings, though only slightly larger than East New York. Some Bloomberg era rezonings, however, were much larger, as shown in the map below.

The Chinatown Working Group’s rezoning proposal covers about .9 miles; the de Blasio rezoning of East New York covered about .6 miles, and Bloomberg’s rezoning of Ozone Park covered about 2.3 miles. The Williamsburg-Greenpoint rezoning came in two parts, one in 2005 and another in 2009, each one a few blocks smaller than East New York.

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Comparing Rezoning Footprints

Figure shows approximate rezoning areas. From left to right: Chinatown Working Group plan, De Blasio's East New York plan, Bloomberg's 2013 Ozone Park plan (the Ozone Park plan appears as two adjacent separate shapes on this map).

Abigail Savitch-Lew

Figure shows approximate rezoning areas. From left to right: Chinatown Working Group plan, De Blasio's East New York plan, Bloomberg's 2013 Ozone Park plan (the Ozone Park plan appears as two adjacent separate shapes on this map).


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Questions of time intensiveness and scale aside, implementing the plan, which recommends that the city require public approval for any disposition of NYCHA property, would likely cause other communities to demand the same, which could hamper the administration’s ability to develop NYCHA land. The plan would also certainly conflict with the administration’s stance that boosting the overall housing supply, even market-rate housing, is an important part of addressing the affordable housing shortage.

Other stakeholders still mum

Local elected have avoided commenting on whether they agree with the de Blasio administration that the Working Group plan is too large to implement. Borough President Gale Brewer did not respond to a request for comment, and Paul Leonard, a spokesperson for council member Margaret Chin, declined to take a position, saying that the Chinatown-limited study was only just beginning and largely driven by the community board.

“We want to keep this with the community and keep this a community conversation,” said Leonard, meaning that it was up to the board and neighborhood residents to drive the conversation, not Chin. He added that Chin is concerned about displacement and last June called on the city to conduct a full-scale Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) to ensure public approval of four skyscrapers planned on the Lower East Side waterfront. (The de Blasio administration rejected the call for a ULURP procedure but said they would require the projects to complete an environmental review process).

While Community Board 3 has taken the position that they support a rezoning of all six subdistricts in the Chinatown Working Group’s plan, the board has also repeatedly suggested that the city prioritize the rezoning of three of the subdistricts, excluding a small portion on the north and west side—yet this has also met the resistance of the city.

The board has yet to take a position on whether to support a DCP-coordinated study of just the core of Chinatown, as the de Blasio administration is proposing, but land use chair MyPhuong Chung said that she’d heard support from many former Chinatown Working Group members for moving forward with this portion of the plan—contrary to the demands of yesterday’s protestors. The board is expected to begin formulating their position at a land use committee meeting next week.

“I think there’s a lot of reasoning for … trying to pass the comprehensive plan that covers the entire community district,” says Chung. “But I think the issue now is an issue of how to move forward, whether individually or altogether.”

The Community Board 3 Land Use, Zoning, Public & Private Housing Committee will discuss the Chinatown study next Wednesday December 14 at 6:30 pm at the University Settlement at Houston Street, 273 Bowery. On Thursday December 15, the Department of City Planning will convene its first meeting regarding an environmental review of developments in the Two Bridges area at 6:30 p.m., Gouverneur Health, 227 Madison St. Last but not least, the Coalition for the Protection of Chinatown and the Lower East Side will hold another City Hall rally on Monday January 16.

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