An opening for the Chinatown Working Group’s rezoning proposal may finally be on the horizon. Last night, Community Board 3’s chair, Gigi Li, presented a new development to the Land Use Committee– after two years of sending resolutions supporting the plan to the Department of City Planning, its director, Carl Weisbrod, responded on June 7th expressing willingness to engage in discussion. Still, some community groups remain frustrated that the rezoning process isn’t moving fast enough to keep up with the quickening pace of high-rise development, while board members warned that unity from various stakeholders would be key to achieve comprehensive changes.
The CWG plan, eight years in the making, was created by more than 50 local community groups in collaboration with Pratt Institute. It seeks to add new height limits and mandatory affordable housing requirements to parts of downtown that currently don’t have any height caps. But last year things looked bleak after Weisbrod told the board the CWG plan “was not feasible at this time” and recommended a tightly focused proposal with less emphasis on preservation. CB3 got to work on a new strategy, dividing the proposal into different subdistricts in hopes of passing the most important sections of it piecemeal. It seems this move may have helped bring the Department of City Planning to the table to revisit the idea.
“I am pleased to see that Community Board 3 has committed to taking a focused look at the CWG proposal,” wrote Weisbrod in the email to Li, suggesting they meet soon to discuss the board’s recommendations. “We are hopeful that with a more focused look–one that is specific to Chinatown– we can accomplish these and other important planning goals for the neighborhood.”
But anxiety among locals is rising as new waterfront tower projects pile up, in addition to the already-underway luxury Extell tower. Weisbrod’s mention of keeping the focus “specific to Chinatown” was widely interpreted to refer only to Subdistrict A, the core area of Chinatown, and not the Two Bridges waterfront area included in Subdistrict D, which has seen a sudden increase in skyscraper plans over the past few months. Many members of the Chinatown Working Group want the original plan to stay together and are frustrated that the process not moved fast enough to prevent more waves of majority market-rate development that they worry will lead to displacement in the majority low-income area.
Last month many of them showed up at Community Board 3’s full board meeting, demanding board members sign a pledge committing to support the full CWG plan and to push more vigorously for its passage. Some of them reiterated these frustrations last night. “I am concerned with this chopping down of the plan. I’ve seen all the work that was done to come up with this very cohesive thing,” said Francisca Benitez, of Chinatown and Lower East Side Artists Against Displacement. “I want to see you really fighting for the community and not completely compromising.”
Representing the Lower East Side Power Partnership, Vaylateena Jone, who is also the chair for CB 3’s health committee, said the CB3 meetings had begun to feel like “a nice masturbation session,” with all talk and no action on the CWG proposal. “If we don’t implement our plan, [developers] are implementing their plan, which is to put a bunch of tall buildings with people with very different incomes than ours,” she said. “You can see the waterfront is increasingly being targeted.”
But, as some pointed out in the meeting, even if the CWG plan begins to move forward in earnest, it’ll still take two years or more to get it implemented. That wouldn’t have much effect on the many super-tower plans already in the works, including Extell’s 80-story building already underway at 250 South Street, JDS’s 77-story building recently proposed to go up at 247 Cherry Street, and rumors of two more large residential buildings planned for the lot adjacent to 265-275 Cherry Street.
For years Trever Holland, a CB3 board member and the president of the Two Bridges Residents Association, has doggedly warned about increased gentrification and the risk of more luxury towers that’ll change the character of the waterfront. Last night he pressed for more immediate solutions. “We need to think of something as a community board–I don’t know what resolution, I’m depending on your creativity,” he said. “We need to take a position that we just can’t allow this.”
Li (who is also running for state assembly in September) and a representative from City Council member Margaret Chin’s office both explained that, alongside supporting efforts to get the CWG plan on the table at City Planning, they are urgently looking into other targeted tactics to ensure developers are accountable to the community and various stakeholders. Li said JDS, the developers for 247 Cherry Street (which so far has only presented to residents in nearby buildings) had recently agreed to present at a public community board meeting in September. Roxanne Earley, the director of land use and planning for Chin, said her office is working to support a legal argument for why these buildings should be considered as major modifications on large scale residential development areas, which would trigger ULURP for this sites. (A ULURP, or Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, demands a lot more community board input for construction to move forward and also requires approval from the Borough President, the City Planning Commission, and City Council.)
The community board also defended itself against accusations of inaction. “Please make no mistake, some of us, many of us, the majority of us really give a damn about this community and want to see this thing passed. Which is limited too, in our power,” said board member Damaris Reyes, executive director of Good Ol’ Lower East Side. She pointed out that, while much anger has been directed at the board recently, Li and the board can’t implement the plan alone. It takes a complex network of support from different stakeholders to keep the momentum and pressure up–and likely, more clarity and unity on whether to push for a piecemeal approach to rezoning based on the Department of City Planning’s suggestion, or to stick with an inflexible commitment to keeping the entire plan together at any cost.
“We all know that to go to City Planning, you need to be united as a community. If you are not united as a community […] City Planning will do something they want, or nothing at all,” she said. “So we are going to count on our elected officials, who we believe care about our community, to stand with us as we push forward these three [subdistrict proposals]. Otherwise we are all spinning our wheels and wasting our time.”