Perhaps you thought that the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side sounded angry earlier this year when about 60 activists associated with the group gathered outside Gracie Mansion in the bitter February cold to protest the mayor’s “big scam” of a housing plan. But that demonstration was nothing compared to the one staged Thursday, when the Coalition led a large, supremely loud protest against the loss of affordable housing.
The atmosphere was intense, and relentless air-horn blasts competed with a stream of community members who spoke out in front of Middle School 131 while Community Board 3 met with the Department of City Planning inside. “The city wants us out!” an older woman said, ticking off grievances echoed by her fellow protests that included crumbling public housing, de Blasio’s cozy relationship with developers, and the influx of luxury high-rises.
For eight long years the Coalition (and other neighborhood activist organizations) have vehemently opposed new mega-developments in the neighborhood. “In a few more years, Chinatown and the Lower East Side will just be another extension of Wall Street,” complained David Tieu, a Coalition organizer, explaining that, “This real-estate climate encourages criminal behavior on the parts of landlords and developers because there’s so much money to be made by pushing out middle-income, low-income families.”
The Coalition is pushing a plan that would enact height restrictions as part of a massive rezoning extending across the Lower East Side and Chinatown. The proposal came on the heels of a 2008 rezoning that, after three years of negotiations and a tense back-and-forth, granted protections to 111 blocks on the Lower East Side, about half of which were located in the East Village and granted 75-foot height restrictions. Many Lower East Side residents, including Tieu, not only criticized the rezoning for protecting more affluent blocks while excluding lower-income ones, but argued that it would result in a higher concentration of high-rise luxury developments in the latter.
“It just shows the racist nature of City Planning,” Tieu explained. “It’s 2016–all we’re asking for is equality, that there be height limits so luxury developers can’t have a free-for-all down here.”
The Chinatown Working Group proposal– drafted in December 2013 by the Pratt Center for Community Development and dozens of other community groups including CB3– sets up a special district encompassing historic Chinatown and parts of the waterfront where affordable housing would be protected and new low-income units would be created. The area includes Two Bridges, a longtime stronghold of affordable housing, NYCHA and other public housing. That neighborhood will see dramatic change in the coming years with several new high-rises already in the works. The 80-story Extell tower, which will become the area’s tallest building when it’s completed at the end of 2018, is currently under construction, and a new 77-story JDS project will enter the preliminary planning stages this fall.
If passed, the Working Group plan would be a major bummer for developers who, in the Coalition’s view, have pretty much had their way with the neighborhood up until now, having met little resistance on their way to jamming enormous luxury towers into an already dense area.
Even though the Working Group plan was drafted by community leaders and longtime residents, it hasn’t been met with open arms by the city. In a 2015 letter to CB 3, the DCP’s director, Carl Weisbrod, said that the zoning district was “not feasible at this time,” and recommended that CB 3 minimize the plan’s preservation mission and pare down the protected area. Since then, CB 3 has been working to do just that.
In Tieu’s view, CB3 and the neighborhood’s elected officials are already acquiescing to moneyed real-estate interests, including the Real Estate Board of New York, the industry’s enormous trade association and powerful lobbying arm. “Margaret Chin, with [the support of] REBNY is basically playing the roll of lapdog,” Tieu argued. “She is proposing a rezoning of just one part of the neighborhood, basically the historic core of Chinatown.”
He added that such a plan would ensure that the waterfront, including Two Bridges, “a critical part of our community,” will be “completely excluded” from any rezoning protections.
Of course, the Coalition has responded to this shrinkage with public actions, and put pressure on the community board at a meeting back in May. Last week’s protest demonstrates that the alliance is buckling down as the mayor continues the piecemeal process of enacting his administration’s 10-year housing plan, a colossal overhaul that aside from massive affordable housing preservation includes the creation of 80,000 new units for middle- and low-income families, made possible by way of upzoning various neighborhoods to make way for greater ground-up density.
In the Coalition’s view, the last thing their neighborhood needs is more upzoning. “Since the 2008 rezoning [under Bloomberg], we’ve seen record-high levels of eviction, and thousands of people and families have been displaced from the neighborhood, many small business as well,” Tieu explained. “If you look at de Blasio’s housing agenda, in general his rezoning plan basically incentivizes and encourages luxury development.”
Protestors had a much more theatrical way of relaying the same frustrations, starting with an enormous, papier-mâché head, impaled on a large stick, that looked like the Monopoly man on one side and the mayor on the other. At the microphone, an older woman described de Blasio’s plan as one that will “leave the Latino community at the mercy of the luxury developments.” She was surrounded by people waving neon signs that demanded, “Stop the evictions, save our homes” and “Rehire the worker,” while others called for the mayor’s “resignation.”
The mayor was not the central target of the Coalition’s ire, however. Instead, City Council member Margaret Chin bore the brunt of the protestors’ frustrations. Flyers handed out at the protest urged people to join and “PROTEST Margaret Chin’s Racism,” and declared that she was out to “divide and destroy our community by promoting high rents, racism, and displacement” by “slicing up” the Working Group plan.
When protestors spotted Chin, they loudly booed her while Coalition members called out “shame!” through the microphone that sounded like it was set to full-blast.
But it remains to be seen how de Blasio’s housing policy will play out on the Lower East Side, or how local leaders will go about drafting their own community plan.
Many neighborhoods have already come up with their own plans, one specifically tailored to suit their specific needs and concerns. And in a few others, city leaders say they’re drafting community plans with direct input from residents. City Council members Antonio Reynoso and Rafael Espinal have have teamed up to draft the Bushwick Community Plan, a comprehensive policy package currently underway. It will include rezoning recommendations in addition to a number of other initiatives ranging from park improvements to addressing public health concerns. The plan involves the full-time participation of community leaders and city agencies who are connecting with community members at the ground level.
The Lower East Side isn’t quite there yet. Whereas the Coalition saw Thursday’s meeting as an opportunity for Margaret Chin and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer to take a stand against the city, not all parties seemed to feel that an ultimatum was looming. Chin’s director of communications, Paul Leonard described the City Planning Commission’s presentation as “more of a roadmap for a conversation to formulate a neighborhood plan which would include rezoning but also other things for the neighborhood. It was focused, and I think rightfully so, on the many opportunities for public engagement– and right now it’s with the Community Board.”
Leonard assured us that “there would be a lot of feedback from the community.”
Much like we’re seeing in Bushwick, that plan will be a comprehensive one that involves much more than just rezoning. “What we’re really talking about is creating a neighborhood plan that would include a rezoning that’s focused on Chinatown, but within the conversation there will be many different areas and needs to discuss,” he explained.
The Coalition, however, is steadfast in their position. “We want this Chinatown Working Group plan to be passed in full,” Tieu said. “Not a phony compromise of it.”
Despite the criticism of Chin, the council member has shown her support for such community-led planning processes, albeit in a different form. In June, Chin pushed the Department of City Planning to enact a tougher vetting process for some of the developments going up along her district’s waterfront, and even worked to get a ULURP underway (her request for a “major modification” submitted over the summer was unsuccessful).
Leonard also emphasized the council member’s commitment to securing affordable housing for her district. “We need to address the crisis of affordability,” he said. “Every neighborhood should be attainable and affordable for people, and Chinatown’s no different.”