Chinatown Revolt

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Courtesy Extell

Protesters from every borough gathered for a monthly action in front of Gracie Mansion. One seething speech after another—in Chinese, Spanish, and English—rallied against Mayor Bill de Blasio, declaiming his affordable housing plan as a sell-out to developers. He’s worse than Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, they say, for having promised more.

The 21 groups that make up the Citywide Alliance Against Displacement are united in opposition to the de Blasio administration’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability (MIH-ZQA) initiative, which seeks to impose affordability requirements on certain categories of new residential development. They have one thing in common: They abhor new residential construction of any kind. Squeezed by rising rents, they say the small number of new affordable units produced by the existing model of luxury-tower-subsidized affordable housing come at the expense of rent pressure on everything else around it.

Among the most vocal, well-organized, and populous opponents, the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and Lower East Side has a special grievance. In 2008, much of the predominantly white East Village won relief from as-of-right development through a “contextual rezoning” that significantly limited bulk along most side streets, but excluded ethnic enclaves in nearby Chinatown and the Lower East Side. Little Italy is protected by a special zoning district. Tribeca has a special mixed-use district. Soho has a historic district and national landmark status. But Chinatown survives in the absence of any special protections. Since 2002, it lost nearly one-quarter of its rent-regulated apartments, threatening to alter the character of one of the city’s most distinctive cultural districts.

“One of the first things we did when we did the analysis was to show that virtually it was one of the few areas that did not have some controls,” said Eva Hanhardt, a planner at Pratt Institute who worked on zoning recommendations for the Plan for Chinatown and Surrounding Areas, commissioned in 2011 by a coalition of neighborhood organizations. “It had a very high density ‘C-6’ [commercial] zone, which didn’t reflect what is quite a dense residential neighborhood.”

The 53 member organizations of the Chinatown Working Group spent six years negotiating a comprehensive plan emphasizing preservation of affordability and neighborhood character. But in meetings with de Blasio’s City Planning Commission, officials rejected its zoning recommendations as “too far-fetched and too ambitious,” according to Jei Fong, an organizer at the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association.

Completed in December 2013 by the Pratt Center for Community Development, the plan recommends the creation of a special-purpose district for the historic core of Chinatown and its expanded area north of Canal Street. The district would use downzoning to C-4 with 85 height limits as one of the tools to preserve what makes Chinatown unique, to mitigate residential displacement, and to protect neighborhood small businesses from being priced out.

“We were given those three mandates that were essentially, how do we preserve what we feel is valuable—the people, the businesses, and the culture—and where can we provide growth, while we preserve that which is important to maintaining Chinatown as a unique place,” said Hanhardt.

In November, after the City Planning Commission’s rejection, 700 residents attended a town hall meeting to advocate for the plan’s adoption. Local elected officials offered little encouragement, according to activists, treating the commission’s rejection as a fait accompli. “As a representative of the area who has spent decades advocating for Chinatown’s best interests, Council Member Chin is taking an active role in engaging different community stakeholders with the goal of achieving a feasible and focused proposal,” said the Councilwoman Margaret Chin’s spokesman. “We remain hopeful that through this inclusive community-driven process a consensus can be reached that takes all of the varied interests in Chinatown into account.”

On the surface, the image of Chinatown appears unchanged, crowded with tourists, restaurants, bakeries, fish sellers, novelties, and herbal apothecaries. Yet residents see the dangers looming everywhere, symbolized most poignantly by a particularly ludicrous luxury tower being developed by Extell on the East River just north of the Manhattan Bridge.

“The essence of it for us is, how much is there left to compromise?” said David Tieu, a member of the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops. “If you take a walk around, Chinatown is on the verge of being gone if this community rezoning plan is not passed and if urgent action is not taken to stem the development of luxury housing and to stem the real estate speculation in the neighborhood.”

Designed by Adamson Associates Architects, 252 South Street makes use of as-of-right bulk regulations to achieve an 800-foot height without requiring discretionary action. It’s marketed as a “vertical village” with “epic views” starting from $1 million to $3 million, offered exclusively to overseas buyers in China, Malaysia, and Singapore.

“It’s possible because this area was not protected,” Fong said. “It’s an as-of-right building, but it’s really the zoning protections that prevent these things from happening.”

Surrounded on every side by public housing and low-income tenants, and built on an urban renewal site purchased for $103 million formerly occupied by a Pathmark grocery store, it will be joined by a separate 13-story “poor door” building designed by Dattner Architects, providing the required 205 affordable units. (Pegged at 60 percent of the area median income, a two-bedroom would start at $1,081.)

At Gracie Mansion, activists demanded a new model. They dubbed 252 South Street the “Extell Tower from Hell” and donated its photo to Mayor de Blasio on a placard. “We have a gift for you,” they shouted. “You are evil to give us this building. We reject it, and we are giving it back.”

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