CityViews: Now More Than Ever, the Lower East Side Needs a Community-Led Rezoning

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Jens Schott Knudsen

The de Blasio administration has said the Chinatown Working Group plan covers too large an area. But, the authors argue, some other proposed rezonings are just as large.

Chinatown and the Lower East Side are neighborhoods of historic significance where residents and workers organized for unions, rent strikes and takeovers of vacant buildings, and where liberation struggles were led by the Red Guard Party, Young Lords and Black Panther Party. Our neighborhoods survived Hurricane Sandy and built resiliency in the recovery process. This is where immigrants find means of survival, familial language, culture, food, and a sense of community. Chinatown and the LES aren’t just “hip and upcoming” neighborhoods for gentrifiers. These are neighborhoods with rich and vibrant history that serve a present-day purpose to working-class Jewish and Chinese immigrants, Latinos and African-Americans.

In Community Board 3, we’ve experienced grave losses of cultural institutions, residents, housing, and community centers. Chinatown and the LES once had the second largest rent-regulated housing stock in Manhattan. Today, we suffer loss after loss. As luxury hotels and high-end retail has arrived, rent-regulated units and Asian residents have been driven out. For over a decade at CAAAV, our Chinatown Tenants Union (CTU) has been organizing tenants. CTU fights landlord after landlord, but we have realized that rezoning is a tool to proactively protect the community.

In 2008, CAAAV and nearly 60 tenant associations, organizations, landlords and businesses, and Community Boards 1, 2, and 3 gathered to form the Chinatown Working Group. With the support of the Pratt Institute, our goal was to design a comprehensive, community-led rezoning plan. After years of studies, long meetings and debates, we were able to find unity and agreement on a much-needed plan for the residents and small business owners who have been fighting to stay in Chinatown and the LES.

Initially, the Department of City Planning (DCP) disregarded the entire plan, but with pushback from the community, DCP is now considering the Chinatown Core. However, our communities will not settle for just the rezoning of the Core.

DCP claims our neighborhood plan is too expansive. But the CWG plan covers 103 blocks, which isn’t that much bigger from other current plans like East Harlem, which is 95 blocks, and is smaller than some earlier ones.

There is an assumption that rent-regulated apartments will remain rent-regulated and market forces would not deregulate the units. There is also an assumption that zoning Chinatown as a historic neighborhood—protecting the character of the buildings—is sufficient in protecting the people who live in them. These assumptions are hollow. We know firsthand that developers and landlords will use all their wealth and power to manipulate the laws to earn greater profits. And we know that if we don’t protect the LES waterfront from development, Chinatown will also experience even deeper gentrification.

The CWG plan wasn’t initially taken seriously by the administration because we have limited land and air space for development. The administration is prioritizing upzonings that will create market-rate and “affordable housing,” but due to minimum income restrictions, that affordable housing won’t actually be affordable for working-class and poor people, like many of the Chinatown residents who make up CAAAV’s organizing base.

There is an assumption that wealth is an answer to our housing crisis. Instead, we must recognize that wealth and exploitation are actually the root of our crisis. An influx of wealth would permanently change the fabric of the Chinatown and LES community.

Chinatown Tenants Union members are fighting for anti-harassment protections, a historic district, small business protections, restrictions on hotel development, and height caps outlined in the CWG plan for the waterfront and Chinatown. CAAAV’s members deserve more, and the working people of New York deserve better.

In this Trump era, isn’t it clear that our collective humanity is more vital than profits and getting re-elected? In a time when our communities are feeling the repression of mass deportations and the loss of social safety nets, the local administration can take a bold stand by respecting and implementing community-led rezoning plans that protect our homes and livelihoods.

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Cathy Dang is the executive director and Melanie Wang the CTU Tenant Organizer at CAAAV.

5 thoughts on “CityViews: Now More Than Ever, the Lower East Side Needs a Community-Led Rezoning

  1. Thanks to Cathy and Melanie. These demands are important and have been around for a long time. Originally (with the 1975 Charter Revision), local 197-a plans did have significance — that is why none were ever done. Every time a Community Board looked to do one, City Planning said fine, but you have to do the Environmental Impact Statement first. Since no boards had the kind of money for such efforts, none were done. None, that is, until the Bronx Community Board #3 plan (a plan I co-authored). This plan was done in tandem with the 1989 Charter Change, one big “victory” of which was that the city would now pay for the EIS. Of course, after this change in the Charter was made, the city took a different position, namely, that these plans are nothing more than advisory, and since they have no meaning there is no impact, no impact means there is no need for an EIS. So, we got the first plan passed, but it meant nothing. In short, local initiatives are rarely taken seriously. This has to change. By the way, another big “victory” of the 1989 charter change was that every community board could hire a planner. When CBs looked to have these included in the city budget, what were they told? Basically, “of course you can hire a planner; you were always able to hire a planner, but you’re not getting any more money.”

  2. I would like Cathy Dang and Melanie Wang to make clear their positions on CWG rezoning. On December 15 2016, City Limits published an article titled – Board Moves Toward a Yes—With Misgivings—to de Blasio Administration on Chinatown Rezoning. It was written by Abigail Savitch-Lew. The following link is here: http://citylimits.org/2016/12/15/board-moves-toward-a-yes-with-misgivings-to-de-blasio-administration-on-chinatown-rezoning/

    Savitch-Lew wrote:
    “On Wednesday night, members of the Community Board 3 Land Use Committee crafted a letter to the Department of City Planning (DCP) indicating that it will welcome the opportunity to engage in a process for a plan on the Chinatown area, while also emphasizing the board’s interest in meeting long-held goals for the adjacent neighborhoods, and leaving the door open for future discussion about how the city defines the borders of Chinatown.

    The statement, the exact wording of which will not be public until it is voted on by the full board next week, received the approval of 12 out of the 13 present committee members after a long and heated committee meeting. Tunisia Riley, the one board member who did not vote in favor of the statement, expressed concerns that it risked allowing the administration to continue a process focused only on a narrow definition of Chinatown and not on the surrounding Lower East Side.”

    First, Tunisia Riley and Cathy Dang are two of the members in the committee. According to this December 15, 2016, article, Cathy Dang was in support of the Chinatown Core only rezoning and shared the same position as the rest of the other committee members. I want to know if Cathy Dang, one of the two authors here, is in support of CWG rezoning as whole, or if Cathy Dang is in opposition of CWG rezoning as a whole.

    Second, in the same article here, Dang and Wang wrote:
    “Initially, the Department of City Planning (DCP) disregarded the entire plan, but with pushback from the community, DCP is now considering the Chinatown Core. However, our communities will not settle for just the rezoning of the Core.

    Chinatown Tenants Union members are fighting for anti-harassment protections, a historic district, small business protections, restrictions on hotel development, and height caps outlined in the CWG plan for the waterfront and Chinatown. CAAAV’s members deserve more, and the working people of New York deserve better.”

    I simply do not get a clear understanding of Dang and Wang’s position. Are you – Dang and Wang – writing as the (1) representatives of LES/Chinatown overall, (2) representatives of CAAAV or CTU, (3) members of CB3 or (4) merely two authors who write for City Limits? If you – Dang and Wang – do write as the representatives of CAAAV ad CTU, the above sentences do not say a single thing about CAAAV and CTU’s positions on CWG rezoning. You wrote in your article “our communities” and “Chinatown Tenants Union members” when referring to the issues at hand. But, you cannot escape to make clear your position on CWG rezoning by referring to “our communities” and “Chinatown Tenants Union members.”

    Certainly, there are thousands and thousands of community members and working people from LES and Chinatown have supported CWG rezoning AS A WHOLE. It is pointless to say that our communities are in support of the rezoning. Because we know that. What we do not know is: Is – CAAAV and CTU – as an organization – in support of CWG rezoning or not. We, as community members, working people and small business owners, know what we want all these years. You – Cathy Dang and Melanie Wang – the representatives of CAAAV and CTU – are not clear on your position. You cannot fool us by using such language.

    Third, I am a community member from LES and Chinatown. I went to school here and I grew up here. And I work here. I have followed the Chinese and English news very closely all these years. I have also followed the rezoning debate very closely all these years. In 2008, I saw CAAAV and AAFE and other housing groups in LES and Chinatown supported the East Village rezoning. This was a racist rezoning plan the City Government pushed out. CAAAV supported it. CAAAV supported this racist rezoning. CAAAV said the exact same thing the city said. East Village go first, Chinatown/LES later. At the time, Esther Wang as a representative of CAAAV signed off on this. And please, don’t tell me that CAAAV or Esther Wang serves the people. Because You didn’t.

    I want to know: will CAAAV do what it did in 2008 this time. Is CAAAV/CTU saying that rezone Chinatown CORE first and LES later? Is CAAAV/CTU in support of the WHOLE CWG plan or not?

  3. You’re neighborhood is finally attracting prosperous people and you’re complaining? I guess you really do think it was better off when it was a violent dangerous slum area.

  4. How do we take anyone seriously who mentions The Red Guard Party being associated with the LES? This fringe maoist group was viable for only about a year in SAN FRANCISCO, not NY.

    Oh, it’s coming from the racists at CAAAV, who never saw an Asian landlord they didn’t like. It’s just those Jewish landlords who are bad, right?

  5. Must have a moratorium on rezoning in the city, de blasio fault for all rezoning in his
    term, now pareet is not after him, cuomo, and trump all three in a room destroying USA.

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