You gotta give it to the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and their friends–they are persistent AF, despite long odds. In their eight-year quest to pass the Chinatown Working Group rezoning proposal, a plan that would create a new special district with more height restrictions and protections to fend off sky-high luxury towers, they’ve kept up a steady stream of rallies against new developments, marches in support of tenants, held town halls (trying to invite the mayor), and even hand-delivered a “gift” to Gracie Mansion.
Last night members of both the Coalition and the Chinatown Working Group used another tactic, turning up the pressure on Community Board 3, questioning the board’s commitment to the proposal and asking them to take a stronger stand in support of it. With more humungous new construction plans along the waterfront seemingly announced every week recently (the list includes Extell’s 80-story One Manhattan Square, a 77-story JDS/Two Bridges Neighborhood Council collab, and L+M’s two 50-story twin towers), many community activists feel like they are missing the window to get more protections to slow the pace of development–the area is not covered by Mayor de Blasio’s mandatory inclusionary housing policy until it gets rezoned, and since there are no height restrictions in place anyway, there is little incentive for developers to make concessions to the community when the build.
“It’s been eight years and we’re still waiting, and we continue to be treated as second-class citizens,” said artist Francisca Benitez in the public session of the meeting. “It’s extremely urgent we move forward with this plan. We’d like to see it on the top of the agenda at all times, at every community board meeting, especially Land Use [committee meetings].”
The CWG proposal has certainly been on the radar for a long time. Back in 2008 when the East Village got height caps, about 60 community groups, including CB3, began meeting to plan their own construction protections. In collaboration with Pratt Institute, they came up with a plan designed to preserve existing buildings and stop supertalls from taking over.
CB3 expressed support, but the proposal didn’t find willing partners in the de Blasio administration. “We have concluded that the Special Chinatown and Lower East Side Zoning District is not feasible at this time,” wrote DCP Director Carl Weisbrod to the board last year, recommending a tightly focused proposal with less emphasis on preservation. It seemed the plan as-is was a non-starter, so CB3 began work chopping it up, in hopes of passing the most important sections of it piecemeal.
But more than a year later, some of the activists behind the proposal are getting frustrated. At last night’s meeting, tensions were high, with many members asking for more transparency and accountability on the work the board has been doing. Of course, the board is not an elected body with real legislative powers to implement the plan– it’s more a conduit for community stakeholders to express their desires and needs. But coalition members seemed to feel their needs were not being heard or taken seriously enough. In particular, they pushed an inflexible vision, calling for the plan to stay together in its entirety instead of the piecemeal approach.
“We want to know, who do you represent?” said Louise Velez, a Chinatown Coalition member and a representative for CWG. “There should be one plan for the entire community to be protected. We demand that you put the entire CWG proposal on the full board agenda for June, and pledge by the next meeting to affirm your commitment to the CWG plan.”
Residents from 82 Rutgers Slip, the affordable housing building adjacent to the Extell construction site, also spoke, complaining about damage to their building due to construction and adding to the general feeling of neglect. “I’m here to tell the community board, please take a stand to support us, to be on our side, not on Extell’s side, not on the developer’s side,” said one of the residents.
Vaylateena Jones, a board member and chair for CB 3’s health committee sitting in the audience, seemed to speak for many when she called for a more urgent response in the face of increasing development that will almost certainly change the character of the majority low-income neighborhood.
“My concern is, it looks like these people—the developers— are deciding that, ‘lets do this now, let’s get this up, before there’s some zoning restrictions,” she said, referring to the flurry of recent new building announcements. “And when these folks come in, you get a different income level. They don’t want affordable grocery stores […] One of the things that concerns people is, what can be done? Won’t there be something done to stop this, halt this, refute this, all these gigantic buildings?” Her words were greeted with an emphatic applause.
With Gigi Li officially running for the assemblyman seat, perhaps the CWG noticed it was an opportune time to turn up the heat. The board members didn’t address whether or not they’d sign the pledge, but Li explained that the CWG proposal was on the agenda for next month’s Land Use committee meeting and there would be more discussion on how to move forward.
In more positive news, Councilmember Margaret Chin and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer announced new deed restriction legislation this morning to avoid future fiascos like the Rivington House deed bait-and-switch. According the the press release, “the bill would create a public, searchable database of all properties with deed restrictions imposed by or on behalf of city, and would dramatically strengthen public notification requirements whenever the city considers changing or removing such a deed restriction.”
Correction: This article has been edited to reflect the distinction between the Chinatown Working Group, which has about 60 organizations as voting members, including CB3, and the Coalition to Protect Chinatown & the Lower East Side, a separate coalition of over 20 groups that has some overlap with CWG members.