Mayor de Blasio’s proposed neighborhood rezonings are an issue in Council races for East Harlem and the area around Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, where community skeptics are grilling candidates to see who’s a reliable ally in resisting the administration’s plans. At the tip of Manhattan, where incumbent Councilwoman Margaret Chin is seeking a third and final term, zoning looms large, but in a different way. There, it’s anger over a rezoning that didn’t happen that Chin’s opponents are using against her.
In 2008, the Bloomberg administration rezoned a chunk of the East Village and Lower East Side, permitting future growth in some areas but also protecting many blocks with a downzoning. Some Chinatown advocates labeled the plan “racist” for excluding Chinatown and nearby areas also threatened by overdevelopment. Other voices dismissed the charges of racism but agreed that a wider rezoning was needed.
Out of that furor grew the Chinatown Working Group, which over several years crafted a proposal to rezone a large swath of Lower Manhattan. The de Blasio administration rejected that plan as too large geographically but agreed to consider rezoning the core of Chinatown only. Rejected out of hand by some players, other stakeholders accepted the deal, arguing it was better than nothing. Chin was one of them.
Now plans for soaring skyscrapers along the waterfront of the district’s Two Bridges neighborhood have brought worries about gentrification into stark relief. To build the towers, the developers have to modify a special zoning permit covering the Two Bridges area, but the de Blasio administration has ruled the changes are “minor,” meaning the permit can be amended without going through the city’s full land-use process, or ULURP. (An environmental review process, however, is underway, and the projects still require City Planning Commission approval.) Chin has blasted the city for that decision, and she and other pols have hinted they might sue to force a ULURP review.
“These monstrosities will threaten the very character of this neighborhood… We are here to remind the administration and the developers that these projects are not a done deal,” she said at a recent press conference, as reported by The LoDown. “To the members of the City Planning Commission, we have a simple message: If you rule against this community, we will use every tool at our disposal to make sure the voices of the people are heard.”
But Chin’s opponents say the Two Bridges fiasco would never have occurred if Chin had fought harder for the Chinatown Working Group plan.
“We knew that developers were interested in that property,” says Christopher Marte. “Why not be proactive in protecting those areas that are most vulnerable?”
Marte, a consultant, is one of three people challenging Chin in the September 12 Democratic primary. Attorney Aaron Foldenauer and community advocate and filmmaker Dashia Imperiale are the others. It is unclear whether Chin is vulnerable, and hard to say if having three candidates in the race will split the anti-Chin vote or activate other fractures in the district, like the divide between the east side—where Chin has dominated the voting in her previous two races—or the west, where she has lost.
Both Marte and Chin have received the maximum possible public funds payment from the Campaign Finance Board, $95,095, putting them on close to equal financial footing. Imperiale has far fewer resources, while Foldenauer had less than $6,000 in the bank at last report.
An endangered incumbent?
A longtime leader of Asian Americans for Equality, Chin first sought the District 1 seat in 2001, placing fourth in a seven-person race. Chin herself knocked off a two-term Councilmember, Alan Gerson, in 2009. That year, voters were angry over the Council’s vote to extend term limits and an unusual number of incumbents lost seats. This year, concerns about development are stoking challenges to several incumbents.
Chin is the chair of the Council’s Committee on Aging, a member of the Women’s Caucus, a founder of the Progressive Caucus and Co-Vice Chair of the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus. She boasts endorsements by Public Advocate Letitia James, SEIU 1199, Hotel Trades Council, SEIU 32BJ, SEIU Doctors Council, Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the New York State Immigration Action Fund and, as of this morning, State Senator Brad Hoylman, Council Member Corey Johnson and former State Senator Tom Duane. During her time on the Council, she was the first primary sponsor on 19 bills that became law, covering topics like bike safety, adult daycare and tenant harassment.
Marte is not impressed. “We see not only through her legislation but her advocacy with community engagement but also through her budgeting where she hasn’t been proactive,” says Marte.
One of the bills authored by Chin that became law created a public-review process for the lifting of deed restrictions on city-owned property—a reaction to the outrage over the de Blasio administration’s agreement to lift the deed restriction at Rivington House, which is in Chin’s district. A bill she has proposed more recently would require public notifications when an urban renewal district expires; that’s a response to the Two Bridges development controversy, which is taking place on parcels that belonged to such a district until 2007. Good ideas or not, neither piece of legislation can address the problems that have already occurred at Rivington and Two Bridges. (Chin’s campaign did not make her available for an interview.)
The deed restriction controversy is part of the argument opponents use against Chin. “You need to look no further than what this administration and Margaret Chin did with Rivington House. Not only did we lose this great asset owned by the city but the city also lost $72 million in the process,” says Foldenauer. “We lost this beautiful facility serving our seniors.”
Foldenauer believes the district is overwhelmed by new real estate, from the waterfront to the Elizabeth Street Garden. “The fact of the matter is that we don’t have the infrastructure to support further development,” he says. “The 4-5-6 train runs at, I think, two or three times its capacity every day. If you start building new high rises on the east side and don’t implement the Chinatown Working Group plan then you’re going to have even more crowding on the subways.” Schools and sewage infrastructure are also not keeping up, Foldenauer says.
Gender and gentrification
Should Chin be defeated, it would strengthen what already seems like a striking trend in 2017: the loss of gender diversity on the Council. With four women (Melissa Mark-Viverito, Darlene Mealy, Rosie Mendez and Annabel Palma) term-limited, others choosing to leave (Julissa Ferreras-Copeland recently decided not to seek re-election; and Maria del Carmen Arroyo and Inez Dickens left in 2015 and 2016, respectively) and at least two (Helen Rosenthal and Chin) in competitive re-election races, the Council in 2018 could display an even heavier male majority than it already does.
Unless, of course, Imperiale wins in District 1. A tenant advocate—she was a leader of residents at the Grand Street Guild—Imperiale says Chin used to interpret for her when she was organizing. “My district has had politicians that have done a lot of good but have also done things that were not in the best interests of the people,” Imperiale says. “I just feel there’s too much money in politics. There’s legal bribery. After I saw all the developments that were going up in the last couple of years, it was very disturbing to me.”
“In my opinion,” she continues, “I think Margaret Chin’s legacy is going to be one of displacement and that she was totally at the donor’s service.”
Critical to the argument against Chin is the notion that she could have done more to push the administration to undertake the Chinatown Working Group rezoning and head off development and gentrification in the area.
Councilmembers Brad Lander in Gowanus and Rafael Espinal and Antonio Reynoso in Bushwick have managed to get the administration to cooperate on a community-generated rezoning by involving agency officials in the planning from the beginning, although whether the rezonings fully reflect the communities’ visions remains to be seen. The administration’s objection to the size of the CWG proposal is neither baseless nor entirely convincing: As City Limits has reported, the Chinatown Working Group’s rezoning proposal covers about .9 miles while the de Blasio rezoning of East New York covered about .6 miles and Mayor Bloomberg’s rezoning of Ozone Park covered about 2.3 miles.
Still, it’s not clear that Chin could have forced the mayor’s hand. What is clear, her opponents say, is that she could have fought harder to do so.
“It starts with kind of not taking or not allowing the Real Estate Board of New York to pretty much sponsor her reelection in 2013—saying ‘no’ to that because that makes you independent and not tied to any special interest,” Marte says. “When you’re that kind of politician, you have a stronger say of how and what gets developed in your neighborhood.” Chin was one of the top 10 recipients of donations in 2013 from Jobs for New York, the PAC associated with the Real Estate Board of New York, receiving over $230,000.
Imperiale makes no promises that she’d succeed in blocking development if she were elected. “What I would do is fight an endless, endless fight to pass this rezoning,” she says.
Marte, who claims endorsements from many local political clubs and some unions, is emphasizing transparency and engagement and vows to “fully implement the Chinatown Working Group Plan.”
Knocking on doors
Few districts in the city contain the physical and socioeconomic diversity that District 1 boars. It encompasses Battery Park City, Civic Center, Chinatown, Financial District, Little Italy, the Lower East Side, NoHo, SoHo, South Street Seaport, South Village, TriBeCa and Washington Square. In the statistical area in the south and west of the district, median income is the highest in the city—$123,470. It’s about two thirds lower, and the poverty rate three times higher, in the eastern part.
Cathy Dang, executive director of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, a prominent local advocacy group, says Chin has the edge in the race, but her advantage is not absolute. “I still think she’s going to win, though there are viable candidates,” Dang says. “I think the rezoning does play a role. So does Two Bridges.” Dang says that as a third-term member, Chin would have experience and connections to achieve a rezoning—if she pushed for one—that a rookie member would not. “We’d like her to be more aggressive.”
Anti-Chin groups have been leafleting against her. CAAAV, meanwhile, has been registering voters and trying to get people out for the primary. People seem aware of the election, Dang says. “The dilemma we have is a number of our members are not able to vote because of their immigration status. But it’s out there and it’s going to be the work of community groups to get out there and make sure people’s voices are heard.”
“The main concern facing everyone is the question of displacement,” says David Tieu, one of Chin’s fiercest critics. “We’ll see who’s really going to capture the hearts and minds.” He said the Coalition to Protect Chinatown is looking to arrange a candidate forum. A tenant leader told City Limits a different group is also trying to get the hopefuls face to face.