Growth Fears Fuel Effort to Protect Chinatown. Now, Where Exactly is Chinatown?

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Thomas Hawk

Board 3 will work with the de Blasio administration to define the borders of a rezoning for Chinatown.

Local representatives are beginning the long-awaited move to define just what area of lower Manhattan might be covered by a “Chinatown” rezoning that the de Blasio administration has said it will initiate.

As City Limits reported last week, the boundaries of that area are still up for discussion, but it’s clear that the Department of City Planning is seeking a narrower rezoning area than the multi-neighborhood plan proposed by the Chinatown Working Group in 2013.

There may, however, be opportunities for discussing non-zoning related tools and programs to be applied to the larger Lower East Side.

Board 3 will create a subcommittee of its Land Use Committee to begin moving forward with a rezoning study for Chinatown. That committee’s chair, to be appointed by board chair Jamie Rogers, will also lead communications with the Department of City Planning, along with Rogers and land use chair MyPhuong Chung.

As announced at a land use committee meeting on Wednesday night, the new subcommittee, following board bylaws, will include a majority of board members as well as some members of the public, but how many people will sit on it is yet to be determined. A few board members are pushing for a small subcommittee—one suggested seven members—to ensure the discussion process moves quickly, while others emphasized the importance of ensuring the subcommittee includes adequate representation from stakeholders representing Chinatown.

Cathy Dang, a board member and executive director of CAAAV, a nonprofit that organizes Asian immigrants, said the subcommittee should include Lower East Side stakeholders who were involved in the Chinatown Working Group because the definition of Chinatown’s boundaries is still up for further negotiation. One member of the audience pleaded for a rezoning plan including more than just Chinatown.

Even as Board 3 looks ahead to the likely rezoning of part of its district, it is also beginning its review of the high-rise development proposed for a different part. Those planned towers have become emblematic of widespread concerns about changing neighborhood culture and rising rents.

As City Limits reported Monday, four luxury skyscrapers, in addition to Extell’s 79-story building already under construction, have been proposed for a two-block radius on the Lower East Side waterfront. Land Use Committee members are in the midst of preparing comments on the draft scope of work, a document explaining the projects and the proposed method for an environmental review.

Some committee members have concerns about a potential loss of affordable local stores as well as the impacts of population growth on local schools, hospitals and public transit. Damaris Reyes, a committee member and executive director of Good Old Lower East Side, a neighborhood housing and preservation organization, expressed worry about the potential for increased policing on behalf of affluent residents. Several voiced concern that the environmental review process does not require an examination of how the development could cause displacement in rent-stabilized units.

It is also unclear whether the developers will be required to analyze potential displacement on blocks beyond a quarter mile from their projects. Without a broader scope, some board members say, the environmental impact statement could underestimate the gentrifying effects of the development because much of the immediately adjacent housing is public housing, which is somewhat protected from market pressure.

Members of the audience also voiced a number of concerns. Daisy Echevarria, a local resident and a member of Tenants United Fighting for Lower East Side, said that anyone without a nine-to-five work schedule would not sleep due to all the construction noise, and suggested the developers purchase air conditioners and air purifiers for all residents living nearby to block out the sound. CAAAV organizer Melanie Wang said the study of displacement should take into account not only the impact of rising rents, but also of rising living costs as the neighborhood becomes less affordable.

Since the buildings would be built as-of-right under the current zoning, the developers do not need City Council approval to build, but they must seek what the city calls a “minor modification” to existing regulations from the City Planning Commission, as well as undergo an environmental review process to determine the effects of that minor modification.

“Minor modification does not mean minor,” said George Janes, a consultant to the board, on Wednesday night. “All it means is that they’re not asking for any additional waivers. If they did not get this minor modification, they can’t do anything. The difference is between what’s there now and all [2,775] units.”

Yet with power in the hands of the City Planning Commission, some board members expressed doubt that they’d be able to halt the development entirely. They do, however, seek to ensure the best mitigation strategies possible and to expose the severity of potential impacts by requiring the developers to analyze development alternatives. For instance, the committee intends to ask the developer to analyze the difference in neighborhood impacts between their own plan and what would have been built had the Chinatown Working Group’s long-sidelined rezoning plan been passed. That plan asked for height limits of 350 feet and that up to 50 percent of units affordable, while the current plan includes buildings up to 1,008 feet and 25 percent affordability.

One audience member, who gave his name as Josh Pinkerton, spoke out in favor of the developments, noting the city’s homelessness crisis and emphasizing the city’s dire need for the 25 percent affordable units that will come with the developments, though it’s yet unknown the exact rent levels of those units.

“The instinct to try to shrink it or try to kill the project entirely is missing the larger picture,” he said.

Pinkerton would not disclose his affiliations to City Limits but said he was an employee of a financial firm.

One thought on “Growth Fears Fuel Effort to Protect Chinatown. Now, Where Exactly is Chinatown?

  1. Someone please tell this Pinkerton person that if building more of something would solve its problem then bridges would have ended City traffic decades ago. Please, think beyond the simplest level. 75-25 buildings are in no way related to ending homeless. That’s just a dodge for someone who doesn’t want to understand the complexity of a systemic problem. ugh.

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