Lower East Siders rallied against a 56-story building due to rise over the former Pathmark site, with some saying its luxury apartments constituted “racist development.”
Several dozen local residents and members of seven community groups gathered this morning in front of the Rutgers Houses, in the shadow of a crane that towered over the construction site at 227 Cherry Street. After a few minutes, Naved Husain, Lead Organizer for CAAAV, began to lead them in a chant: “Hey hey, ho ho, Extell Tower has got to go!”
The protesters — many of them older Chinese and Hispanic men and women — were there to speak out against the construction of Extell’s latest luxury apartment building, originally slated to tower 71 stories above surrounding apartments and the Manhattan Bridge next door. The developer has since downsized to a 56-story projection, but that isn’t changing the minds of neighboring residents and their advocacy groups.
“Already public housing is being sold off. Why is it that they’re building this luxury tower right in the middle of public housing? We think this is a racist development,” said Wendy Chung of the Chinese Staff and Workers Association. Not only will the construction of luxury buildings displace low-income communities and communities of color because of rent increases, Chung says, but the loss of local businesses and affordable goods in a neighborhood will force people out as well. Extell, for example, purchased the lease of and demolished the Pathmark supermarket that served the largely low-income area (the developer has said that Pathmark has the right of first refusal for the new retail space).
“I think since the 2008 rezoning,” said Chung, “when they only protected the East Village – it actually pushed a lot of the development down here, to Chinatown, the Lower East Side. They’re treating us like we’re second-class citizens.”
Since 2008, reps from various community-based organizations and small businesses have worked under the blanket of the Chinatown Working Group to develop a rezoning plan to protect the neighborhood from privatization, displacement and harassment. The plan would also preserve low-income housing — and create more of it — on the Lower East Side. With the help of Pratt (you can read their study and plan here) they developed a proposal which was recently rejected by the Department of City Planning. “The plan is too ambitious,” Cathy Deng of CAAAV said, explaining why the DCP won’t yet take it into consideration. “What my guess is, the mayor and City Planning are looking for places where they can develop low-income housing, and develop high. We don’t have a lot of land to develop on the Lower East Side and Chinatown. But it doesn’t mean that we don’t need protections for our communities.”
Extell has revealed plans to build a smaller affordable housing building next to their luxury behemoth, but this promise does little more than lend fuel to the protester’s fire. You may have heard of the company’s controversial “poor door” in its new Riverside South development — most of today’s picketers saw the affordable housing building as a furtherance of segregation and discrimination. Moreover, many don’t see what’s considered “affordable housing” as being affordable at all.
One after another, representatives from advocacy groups and neighborhoods throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn took the microphone to call for action. “We don’t need more luxury developments. Who are they kidding?” Alicia Boyd, an anti-gentrification activist, yelled into the crowd, “They give us 20 percent that’s not affordable to us, and 80 percent luxury. That’s a scam!” The group roared in approval.
The Chinatown Working Group has been successful in the past. Just last year, said Ginger Lopez of Good Old Lower East Side, the Bloomberg administration wanted to lease some Lower East Side waterfront property for 99 years and build luxury towers on the remaining open space and basketball courts — the group helped prevent that. “We were hopeful that this particular Mayor [De Blasio] would help us to preserve the affordable housing we have now — and we acknowledge that a lot of public housing is in a state right now where we need to raise revenue — but we don’t want luxury housing. We don’t think that’s the answer to this.” Instead, she hopes that the existing community members will rally and provide different suggestions for how to proceed. “The Lower East Side,” she says, “has always been a really very fiery community. The people are very proud of their neighborhood and they want to keep what they have here. People really fight for what belongs to them here.”
For now, the Chinatown Working Group is concentrating on convincing Community Board 3 to agree on the rezoning plan, and pushing it through to City Planning with more force. But that’s not going to stop the construction of Extell’s Two Bridges development – which may not actually have a bowling alley or Turkish bath, but certainly won’t be a center for the existing community. When asked for a word on anything from the protests to the height of the building, Extell declined to comment. The protestors will be back to voice their concern on the last Wednesday of every month until they feel they are heard.