Chinatown BID Pushes Dream of a Gate

Chinatown has plenty of iconic sights – the signs, the shops, the crowds –but not one all-encompassing landmark. That soon may change. (Photo by Adam Fagen, Creative Commons license)

Chinatown has plenty of iconic sights – the signs, the shops, the crowds – but not one all-encompassing landmark. That may soon change. (Photo by Adam Fagen, Creative Commons license)

What’s the best landmark Chinatown could have? Is it a western-style marble gate or a Chinese-style decorated archway? Should it be located at the intersection of Canal Street and Mott Street or at Chatham Square? Manhattan’s Chinatown has been dreaming in vain for an arch for 40 years. The dream started to get some new momentum in the past year after the Chinatown Business Improvement District was formed.

Wellington Chen, the executive director of the Chinatown BID, invited architectural technology majors from New York City College of Technology to design a landmark for Chinatown. The designs were presented at the International Downtown Association’s 2013 World Congress conference on October 7. Chen said he hopes the designs by the students can reignite Chinatown’s dream for an arch.

Forty years ago, under the leadership of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, Chinatown started to think about building a gate. Many people in the community thought a landmark gate could be a magnet for people in the community and help the image of Chinatown to attract younger Chinese as well as more tourists. But over the past four decades, the plan pretty much died because of disagreement among different stakeholders.

In 2005, the City Council allocated $250,000 for Chinatown to build a gate. But no community organization was able to come up with a proposal. In 2009, with still no concrete proposal, the City Council canceled the money.

One proposal imagines a structure akin to the Sydney Opera House. (Image from Chinatown development organizations via World Journal)

One proposal imagines a structure akin to the Sydney Opera House. (Image from Chinatown BID via World Journal)

After the inception of the Chinatown BID, Chen worked with the architectural technology department at City Tech to start the design. Under the instruction of assistant professor Michael Duddy, students were divided into four teams. They were given a year to design a landmark for Chinatown. There was no restriction on the architectural structure, but it had to be an open space for the public, visible during the day and at night, and be attractive enough to pull in the crowds. And it has to include an information center for tourists.

Duddy said the first priority for the students was to decide on a high visibility location that is busy with people because the main purpose of the landmark was to establish a sense of community and attract crowds to Chinatown. But a challenge to the students was whether this sense of community was for tourists, residents living in Chinatown or Chinese from all over the country.

A visual of Eddy Hernandez's proposal (Image from Chinatown development organizations via World Journal)

A visual of Eddy Hernandez’s proposal (Image from Chinatown BID via World Journal)

Eventually, the students chose six locations, including a triangle area at the convergence of Canal and Walker Streets, Chatham Square, the market on Forsyth Street, Delancy Street, the intersection of Canal Street and Bowery under the Manhattan Bridge, and Foley Square. The students designed a landmark for each of the locations, based on their characteristics.

For example, Eddy Hernandez designed a plaza highlighted by a landmark shaped like a traditional Chinese sailing ship at the Canal Street triangle area. An LED screen would provide light at night and to be used to sell advertisements to generate revenue.

Chen said Chinatown has been dreaming of a gate for 40 years. But the dream has never been fulfilled because of the lack of a solid proposal and the absence of approval from the city, restrictions on land use, and given that no one in the community was willing to take the reins. Now the Chinatown BID would like to take on the responsibility of helping Chinatown realize the dream.

Questions still remain, including where the money will come from and how to get the approval of the city. Chen said there is still a  long way to go. And a proposal agreed by the community is a must-have to negotiate the land use issue. After the city approves the project, money can be raised based on the cost assessment of the proposal. Funding can be from public sources, foundations or private donations. The first step is to hold an international design competition to get the best design prior to further action.

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