Volume 78 / Number 1 - June 4 - 10, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

Board 3 unanimously approves rezoning for East Village/L.E.S.

By Heather Murray

Community Board 3 voted unanimously to support the Department of City Planning’s East Village/Lower East Side rezoning plan at its May 27 full board meeting, which means it could go into effect in five months or less if approved by Borough President Scott Stringer, the City Planning Commission and the City Council.

If the rezoning plan is enacted, all new buildings going up in the area would be height restricted — a provision not in the area’s current zoning. The 111-block plan would cap building heights at eight stories in most areas and at 12 for Houston, Delancey and Chrystie Sts. and Avenue D. Those streets are upzoned to allow for voluntary inclusionary zoning, or I.Z., which would require that 20 percent of a building’s units be affordable in order for the developer to qualify for the height bonus.

The plan is bounded generally by E. 13th St. on the north, Avenue D on the east, Grand and Delancey Sts. on the south and 100 feet east of Third Ave. and Bowery on the west.

Villager photo by Nick Brooks

At the May 27 Community Board 3 meeting at P.S. 20 on Essex St., a Chinatown resident expressed his opposition to the East Village/Lower East Side rezoning plan, which doesn’t include Chinatown. The board later voted to approve the rezoning.

While the community board voted to approve the plan, it did so with the caveat that several modifications be made. C.B. 3 first came out with the list of recommended modifications, dubbed the “11-Point Plan,” back in December 2006. Included in the recommendations are provisions against harassment, displacement and demolition, establishing a legal service fund to enforce such provisions and increasing the amount of affordable housing to 30 percent in new developments.

Damaris Reyes, executive director of Good Old Lower East Side, or GOLES, and a member of the 197-c Task Force that worked on the plan, said, “We’re in a critical time. New luxury towers and hotels are going up every time we turn around. We’re seeing university expansion, apartment development, much of which doesn’t serve the existing neighborhoods.”

Reyes supports the plan with the proposed modifications. She said she wished the inclusionary zoning could be made mandatory, guaranteeing that affordable housing would be built by developers.

“That would be where to move next — to ask for permanent mandatory inclusionary zoning. I believe you should hold out for all the fights, but also believe I have a responsibility to the community,” she told the Villager.

When Reyes spoke about holding out for all the fights, she was referring to the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, which was formed this year in opposition to the rezoning. At previous meetings, the coalition staged protests with the goal of expanding the rezoning to include Chinatown and the Bowery. C.B. 3 did originally include the Bowery in its community-initiated rezoning plan, but then the city took over the lead on the rezoning three years ago and dropped the Bowery from the plan. The board is currently working on its own Bowery rezoning with the help of an urban planning fellow supplied by the borough president.

Josephine Lee, an activist with Chinese Staff and Workers Association, called the plan “basically a bunch of empty promises. They have still refused to include the whole community district,” Lee said. “Affordable housing is still not mandatory and still not on-site. … Now they are giving lip service to pushing a separate rezoning plan for Chinatown and the Bowery.” Lee feels Chinatown residents will be displaced before a new rezoning plan for that neighborhood is in place, saying that because they are situated on the periphery of the current rezoning “now there is more pressure for development in our community than if there was no rezoning plan.”

Norma Ramirez, president of Action by the Lower East Side, is also concerned about displacement.

“I’m all for progress, but what about the families that have been here for generations and generations?” she said.

Ramirez feels the plan should not pass the City Council and “should be stopped and really looked into.” She said she and others are considering bringing a class-action suit against C.B. 3 for creating a plan “that covers us, when they never invited us. It’s very unfair. I’m not sure under what grounds, but I think we have grounds for a class-action suit,” Ramirez said.

Valerio Orselli, executive director of the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association and a supporter of the rezoning, said, “What we’re doing is what is possible within the limits of City Planning. Otherwise, the city wouldn’t do it. It’s not designed to stop real estate developers from developing. All we’re trying to do is place certain curbs on the current Wild West atmosphere.” He said he and others questioned a number of arguments made by those opposing the plan, including an assertion that the majority of the community board district’s minority population was excluded from the plan. According to C.B. 3 numbers, however, 60 percent of minorities in the board’s district reside within the plan’s boundaries.

The May 27 full board meeting didn’t see as much protest against the rezoning as a couple of recent others, though, and, as a result, Orselli felt it was more productive.

“Without the protesting,” he said, “there was an opportunity for dialogue and questions.”

C.B. 3 Chairperson David McWater said of the plan, “I think it’s wonderful. I think this plan will be monumentally positive for the neighborhood.” He added that he believes if a referendum were held on the plan, 95 percent of the community board’s residents would support the rezoning.

McWater, who was visibly upset at previous board meetings by protesters calling C.B. 3 racist, said, “I don’t like the way any of it went down.” But, he added, perhaps it has helped to encourage Chinatown to put more stock in its relationship with C.B. 3. He pointed out that, according to population, there should be roughly 17.5 Asians on the community board out of 50 members. Yet, the board receives only a few applications from Asians who want to be appointed, he said. When he took over as C.B. 3 chairperson in 2004, there were three Asians on the board, he noted, adding that, under his tenure, this number has been doubled to six.

Looking forward to future rezoning efforts, McWater said the Bowery would be back on the task force’s agenda in July, and that C.B.3 is “certainly open to rezoning Chinatown.” He said the board would have to hear directly from residents that they want the rezoning, rather than from activist organizations. He cautioned that a rezoning wouldn’t address all of Chinatown’s issues, including worsening traffic congestion and the changing face of industry.

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