“Where are you, de Blasio?” That was the question of the afternoon when rain-soaked protesters braved the weather at City Hall to protest rezoning that they claim has led to racism and displacement within their community. According to the organizers of the rally, The Coalition to Protect Chinatown & The Lower East Side, Mayor Bill de Blasio told them earlier in the day Wednesday that a representative from his office would come out to address them, but no one showed up. It could have been the rain that kept the nameless flack away, but try telling that to 75 wet, angry people struggling to keep their umbrellas from turning inside out. The next stop, they say, will be Gracie Mansion.
As with last month’s demonstration, the march began at 227 Cherry Street, the construction site of a new luxury tower being built by developers Extell. According to a fact sheet put out by the Coalition, an association of community groups, elected officials, senior centers, small businesses, students, workers and families, a rezoning plan put into effect in 2008 provided contextual zoning for the wealthy and predominately white community north of Houston while excluding most of the low-income and minority communities in Chinatown and the Lower East Side. The zoning plan of 2008 set height limits for new buildings in 100 blocks in the East Village and some of the Lower East Side, but most of Chinatown was not included, allowing for towers like the one going up on Cherry Street to exist.
A press release refers to Chinatown and the Lower East Side as “ground zero for the displacement of low-income people of color”: “Since the East Village Rezoning Plan was passed in 2008 — protecting majority white wealthier areas and excluding majority Latino, African-American and Chinese areas in Community District 3 — new luxury development has accelerated gentrification and led to massive evictions,” it reads. An alternative zoning plan was developed by the Chinatown Working Group in conjunction with The Pratt Center for Community Development.
Pratt’s “Plan For Chinatown” states that Chinatown and its surrounding areas are experiencing increased development pressures because they are some of the only parts of lower Manhattan that are not covered by either a Special District or contextual zoning, which would put certain protections like height restrictions in place. Instead, they are still under a 1961 zoning that allows “as-of-right” buildings, like the Extell building, which can be built without any city approval other than regular construction permits. The plan points out that many of the new as-of-right developments conflict with the scale and character of the existing buildings and would limit new development to a height of 85 feet in many areas, but it was rejected by the Department of City Planning earlier this year. In a letter to Community Board 3, the DCP called the plan too far-reaching and ambitious.
The coalition is demanding the mayor adopt the alternative plan, put an end to 421-a tax abatements, and immediately halt the construction of the Extell building. Opponents of the controversial luxury apartment building say it’s the result of the problematic rezoning combined with tax breaks that rob the city of funds that could be better spent on services to benefit the area’s current residents. “My apartment floods when it rains. Our building is in dire need of repairs, yet the city is giving way millions to Extell to build a luxury tower for the rich,” said Louise Velez, who currently lives in a public housing development, at the protest.
Randy Rodriguez, who opened Cabalito Salvadoran Restaurant on Essex Street, eight months ago, closed his eatery so he could march to show his support. “It’s important because I have to fight to maintain a local business in the neighborhood,” he told us over the phone yesterday evening. “I want to fight with the community for new rezoning laws because it can help small business just as much as residents.”
“We had always said that this is not going to be resolved with one action, one march,” Coalition member Sarah Ahn told Bedford + Bowery the morning before the rally. “At the last march we sent a letter to de Blasio asking he meet with the committee, and one month has passed and still no response, so the committee is actually pretty pissed off that he’s ignoring these dire needs of the community.”
For Ahn, seeing so many people come out despite the atrocious weather was a bittersweet success; they still haven’t heard back from the mayor. “I think people feel at this point that he really needs to state his position on the rezoning plan,” she told B+B. “He’s had ample time, so I think will go ahead with our picket of Gracie Mansion. Whatever form it takes we will be continuing if we don’t get a response.”