Chinatown Merchants Oppose Preservation Proposals

Mott St., in the heart of Chinatown, is in the planned preservation zone. (Photo by Ken Lund, Creative Commons license)

Mott Street, in the heart of Chinatown, is in the proposed preservation zone. (Photo by Ken Lund, Creative Commons license)

[Translator’s note: Chinatown Working Group (CWG) was formed in 2008 after Chinatown residents protested against the city’s land-use reform efforts, concerned that gentrification would increase in Chinatown. CWG, with members who are various stakeholders in Chinatown, was formed to draw the map for future land use reform. CWG members can vote on decisions and proposals. The blueprint mentioned in this story was released by the CWG in January.]

The blueprint for Chinatown land-use reform, which was released earlier this year after seven years of preparation and has caused vehement debates since, has now stirred a new round of controversy. This time, property owners including the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) and the community organizations affiliated with it, have cried foul.

The property owners said the way the preservation area was drawn on the map in the proposal was as unprofessional as the final project of college students. They said more than 80 percent of property owners whose buildings were put in the preservation area were not notified. They worried that this proposal, if approved, would not only damage the interests of property owners, but also send Chinatown on the road to death like Little Italy. Chinatown Working Group (CWG), the ad hoc organization that released the proposal, said it has not yet voted on the controversial part opposed by the property owners.

The new uproar was caused by a newly surfaced list of properties in the preservation area, which includes buildings owned by major community organizations such as CCBA and the Lin Sing Association as well as many township and clansmen associations.

Eric Ng, president of CCBA, said he only just saw the list brought over by a person in the community. More than 50 buildings are on the list including 13 belonging to community organizations. He said the designers of the proposal didn’t come to Chinatown and listen to the voices of the community. They drew the map in a way students do their graduation projects. He even called the proposal a backroom deal, created behind closed doors.

Dean Fong, a lawyer in Chinatown, said the Chinatown Property Owners Committee represents residential and commercial properties worth $10 billion that generate more than $25 million in property taxes every year. But the committee only has one vote in the CWG.

Fong said he disagreed with the CWG that Chinatown property owners have been trying to push tenants out. Fong said a building in a preservation area doesn’t have as many restrictions as a landmark building. But once a property is included in the designated preservation area, it will have to face restrictions on renovation, construction materials, and commercial use.

For example, a shop cannot be bigger than 2,500 square feet. And when tenants are evicted by the city because of safety concerns, landlords have to set up a deposit with three years’ rent. [Editor’s note: In February, New York City Councilwoman Margaret Chin proposed that landlords put in escrow 10 percent of the previous five years’ rent rolls to help relocate tenants evicted because of safety concerns. This was a revision of earlier proposals.]

“How would we come up with three years’ rent?” Fong asked. He also questioned the CWG and the map drawers’ criteria on setting the boundary of the preservation area and selecting the buildings.

Yu-Tian Lee, head of the East Coast branch of Lee’s Family Association, said the organization’s headquarters on Mott Street is also on that list. “But the building is less than 40 years old. Why do you want to preserve it?” Lee asked. He said buildings that have historic value should be preserved. But there are only one or two such buildings in Chinatown. Justin Yu, president of Confucius Plaza housing, said that if he had a property in the preservation area, he’d want to dissolve the preservation area.

When it got $150,000 funding last year, the CWG commissioned the Pratt Center for Community Development to design a rezoning map for Chinatown. The proposal, which was finished at the end of last year, has more than 145 pages.

The proposal suggests dividing the waterfront of the East River and Chinatown below 14th Street into five zones. The heart of Chinatown along Mott Street is put in zone A, the preservation area. But the recommendations won’t increase the air rights of the buildings.

In its response to the community organizations, the CWG said the controversial part opposed by property owners has not been approved yet. And the list was only made by Pratt to provide background information. Indeed, so far the only decision made about the rezoning was the one voted on by Community Board 3 in March that prohibits buildings in the preservation area from transferring their air rights to buildings in other zones. This means the community doesn’t support allowing property owners in zone A to transfer the air rights of their zone A buildings to buildings which they own in other zones.

The property owners said they would present their case in the next meeting of the CWG. CCBA and the other seven major community organizations that are affected also held a closed-door meeting about the issue.

The next meeting of the CWG will be held at 5:30 pm on May 5 at 191-193 Canal Street. Another vehement debate seems guaranteed.

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