Volume 75, Number 39 | February 15 -21 2006

Chinatown is getting tired of being the Police Department’s parking lot

By Adam Graham-Silverman

Chinatown residents recently unveiled a video that they hope will help them make the case that police and government officials are abusing parking privileges in Chinatown, clogging the narrow streets and crowding out deliveries and business.

“Arteries transport blood and nutrients to our bodies,” says the video’s narrator while the film shows footage of cars parked in no-standing zones, blocking sidewalks and in front of fire hydrants. The video also shows cars with parking permits that do not match their license plates, a practice activists believe is widespread.

“These are private vehicles used by law enforcement personnel not as part of their jobs but to commute to and from their jobs,” said City Councilmember John Liu, chairperson of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, at a Feb. 7 Community Board 3 forum. “Agencies are refusing to understand the problem, at best. And at worst agencies understand the problem and are refusing to do something about it.”

Members of the neighborhood’s Outreach Task Force on Transportation Issues, which hosted the forum and produced the video, at the last minute, decided not to invite the police, feeling the presence of police might deter people from speaking their minds. A representative from Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s office attended, but did not speak. The mayor’s office has not decided on an approach to the parking and traffic issues.

City Councilmember Alan Gerson, who set up the task force, told about 40 audience members at Chinatown’s I.S. 131 that resolving the parking problems now rests beyond the precinct level.

“The only way to get this solved is if [Police] Commissioner [Ray] Kelly sends out a directive that this will not be tolerated,” he said. “The police commissioner has to issue it himself, and mean it.”

Gerson said he had planned a meeting with top police brass at the end of 2005, but it had been postponed and not yet rescheduled.

Many of the complaints stem from street closures around 1 Police Plaza put into effect in the wake of 9/11. Community activists also say police have used parking placards to institute a “land grab” around Police Plaza.

Audience members echoed the outrage on display in the video, in which shopkeepers complain that deliveries can’t be made and that illegal parking drives away business.

“They are the law enforcement people and they are breaking the law because they don’t give a [crap] about the Chinatown people,” John Hong, a merchant, says in the video. “When they come in they act like they own the street.”

In response to questions about why parking rules aren’t enforced against these cars, C.B. 3 member David Crane had a simple response: “Institutionalized racism,” he said, to applause.

Police spokespersons did not comment for this article. WCBS-TV reported last year that up to one-third of the parking placards are fake or being misused.

Several Chinatown residents are also plaintiffs in a suit against the city seeking to reopen a stretch of Park Row that remains closed except to bus traffic. Residents argue this closing forces traffic onto side streets and delays ambulances and fire trucks coming from Engine Company 6 and New York Downtown Hospital.

“Since ’01 everybody has gotten their streets back except for Chinatown,” said Ken Kimerling, legal director at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Kimerling said that instead of coming to Lower Manhattan, tourists and shoppers are going to Chinese communities in Flushing, Queens or Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Since 9/11, 29 businesses along a two-block stretch of Mott St. have changed hands, according to the task force. No. 11 Mott St. has had five different owners during this period of slightly more than four years. Progress on the lawsuit is awaiting the pending results of an environmental study on the effects of the closing.

Even if parking rules are changed — or, rather, enforced — questions remain about where the cars belonging to government employees will park. A study by Transportation Alternatives showed that the area east of Centre St. between the Brooklyn Bridge and Canal St. had the most auto commuters per day — 11,350 — of any destination in the city. More than half of these were government workers. The study used 2000 census data, and the assumption is the problem has only worsened since then.

Chinatown is also bedeviled by parking issues related to commuter vans and buses going to Atlantic City, Washington, Boston and Philadelphia. Gerson said the area is home to more passenger pickups than the Port Authority in Midtown.

Among the suggestions at the meeting were allowing post-rush hour parking on Canal, Division or Allen Sts., and changing the one-way tolls on the Verrazano Bridge and Holland Tunnel that currently encourage trucks to enter Manhattan at Canal St., instead of going via Staten Island, on the way to New Jersey.

“We’re dealing with this super-need to drive without public parking. If they really want to provide parking for their employees, build a parking lot,” said Danny Chen. “The Police Department should take the appropriate steps to protect itself, but a line should be drawn and the line is drawn at the wrong point. People feel like they’re protecting their families, but the question is who is going to pay for it? We pay for it.”

The task force, which also produces a newsletter and has three more meetings planned, is funded by a $100,000 grant from the Red Cross 9/11 disaster relief fund.

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