At 8:30, a half hour before today’s City Planning Commission hearing on the East Village/Lower East Side rezoning was to officially begin, an unexpected fight that would come to dominate it was already underway. More than a hundred Lower East Side and Chinatown residents, many of them Chinese and Latino, had gathered in front of the Tisch Auditorium at NYU Law School to decry what they saw as their disenfranchisement from the rezoning plan.
“We’ve got to stop this racist plan,” one woman yelled into a megaphone that echoed across Washington Square Park. “We’ve got to stop Bloomberg. We’ve got to stop the developers. We’ve got to stop this racist plan.” The crowd roared with approval.
It was a new twist in a five-year planning process that took many locals by surprise.
Beginning with a group of East Village residents who grew concerned about creeping gentrification over a decade ago, what became the East Village Coalition developed a plan that was eventually taken up by Community Board 3. From there, it spread to much of the East Village and the Lower East Side north of Delancey Street, at which point the Department of City Planning began to work on the plan with the community.
The thrust of the plan is to cap building heights where few exist while pushing development to the avenues and protecting the historic tenement scale on the side streets. To encourage affordable housing, development on the avenues and other mapped “wide streets,” such as Chrystie Street, will become part of the city’s inclusionary housing program, which requires 20 percent of units to be affordable to achieve full buildable density. New contextual zoning will require that buildings be built to the lot line, preventing taller, set-back buildings.
The fear of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, which held the rally and fielded numerous speakers during the hearing, is that such a rezoning will create undue pressure on the neighborhoods surrounding the rezoning area. Members speaking for the group said it wants the department to delay passage of the rezoning until Chinatown and the section of the Lower East Side south of Delancey Street can be studied and incorporated, something the group hopes could be accomplished in the next few months but would likely take many years.
“This is just another example of how DCP is pushing out low-income and minority communities in favor of rich developers,” Malcolm Lim said. The 35-year-old said he grew up in Chinatown, as did his parents and grandparents. “We demand a plan that does not discriminate against the non-white residents of Community Board 3,” he added.
The basis for the claims of racism is that, as Lim pointed out, the board’s population is roughly one-third each white, Latino, and Chinese, though 73 percent of residents within the rezoning area are white. “I don’t know you,” Jeff Mansfield, a pastor at Judson Memorial Church and coalition member, told the commission. “I don’t know if you’re racist, but intentional or unintentional, this plan is racist. It hurts the people in Chinatown and on the Bowery and in NYCHA housing. Intentional or not, it hurts the community.”
But Christopher Kui, executive director of Asian Americans for Equality, said the coalition was merely playing the race card to achieve its own ends. “It’s a flawed argument,” he said. “By that logic, you would have to stop every rezoning in the city because it puts pressure on everything else.”
From a planning standpoint, the city and Village community insist the two neighborhoods are too different to be considered concurrently. At 111 blocks, the East Village/Lower East Side rezoning is the third largest undertaken by the city. During the early planning stages, the western boundary stretched to 4th Avenue, but the department decided to make 2nd Avenue the border because it felt the Bowery and 3rd and 4th avenues had more of a commercial feel than the residential neighborhoods to the east.
Though no coalition representatives would admit to it, theirs could simply be a political maneuver to gain leverage when a Chinatown rezoning becomes a reality, as the department has indicated it might, especially in light of the overwhelming support for such a move today. Indeed, those looking to protect the Bowery took up similar rhetoric.
Despite the complaints of those who have ostensibly been excluded, the rezoning was generally commended by those who testified, though even those who supported the project asked for more affordable housing—namely 30 percent spread across all streets, not just the avenues—and protections against tenant harassment and illegal demolitions, provisions supported by Borough President Scott Stringer and the two local City Council members. Given that the council is the last stop, and recent concessions made at the council during the rezoning of 125th Street, such concessions stand a good chance of being incorporated.