Volume 78 / Number 11, August 13 - 19, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

Villager photo by Laurie Mittelmann

Chris Kui, executive director of Asian Americans for Equality, speaking in support of the East Village/Lower East Side rezoning last week.

Rhetoric on rezoning ramps up as public review continues

By Lincoln Anderson, Albert Amateau and Laurie Mittelmann

The East Village/Lower East Side rezoning hearing taking place today Wed., Aug. 13, began at 9 a.m., an hour earlier than the usual City Planning Commission hearing, and is taking place in the Tishman Auditorium of New York University’s Law School at 40 Washington Square South.

“We want the public to know that the commission is absolutely committed to hearing everyone who wishes to testify and we arranged for a venue that could accommodate as many as possible,” said Rachael Raynoff, a City Planning spokesperson. “The commission will sit until we have heard every speaker that has signed up to testify,” Raynoff said. The time limit for each speaker will be three minutes to allow everyone to be heard.

“We are unable to change the location or time at this point,” she added. “Delaying would contradict previous notification efforts and could also jeopardize the strict timetable for issuing a final environmental impact statement,” she said.

For speakers from Queens, the commission has estimated that the hearings for the Hunters Point and Willets Point rezonings, scheduled for later in the day, would not start before 11 a.m. and noon, respectively.

“Those estimated times in no way represent an official termination time for the East Village/Lower East Side hearing,” Raynoff said. “Everyone who signs up will be heard, and for people who cannot wait, the commission will accept written statements.”

Meanwhile, opponents of the rezoning vowed to turn out in force outside the hearing. Josephine Lee, coordinator of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side — an offshoot of the Chinese Staff and Workers organization — said upwards of 100 protesters would kick off a demonstration at 9:15 a.m.

The rezoning 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. The 111-block plan would cap building heights at 80 feet, or about eight stories, in most areas.

However, on three wider streets — E. Houston and Delancey Sts. and the west side of Avenue D — building heights would be capped at 120 feet, or about 12 stories, if affordable housing is included. These wider streets would allow for taller buildings under the city’s voluntary inclusionary zoning, or I.Z., plan, which would require that 20 percent of a building’s units be affordable in order for the developer to qualify for the full height bonus. In addition, on the west side of Chrystie St., for developers voluntarily using I.Z., building heights would be permitted to be even taller — up to 145 feet.

The rezoning plan’s critics have decried the fact that much of Chinatown is not included in it, while, at the same time, taller housing is being proposed for streets in largely low-income, minority neighborhoods, such as Chrystie St. and Avenue D. Plus, rezoning the East Village and Lower East side will just shift development pressure to Chinatown, they charge.

However, according to David McWater, former chairperson of Community Board 3, because of all the opposition to it, inclusionary housing, or “I.Z.,” and taller buildings on Chrystie St. may end up not being part of the final plan, after all.

C.B. 3 chairperson until stepping down two months ago, McWater has doggedly advocated for the downzoning plan over the past three years.

In addition to Chrystie St. possibly not getting tall buildings, he noted, the I.Z. option for developers recently has been added for the other wide avenues in the East Village — Second and First Aves. and Avenues A and C. However, McWater said, developers won’t be able to build much taller on these avenues if they do include I.Z., compared to if they do not, but that if they don’t include I.Z., their buildings will be smaller. Under the rezoning, these four avenues’ floor-area ratio would go from 3.4 to 4.0; if I.Z. is included, the F.A.R. is boosted to 4.5. (The current maximum F.A.R. on those blocks for community facilities, such as school dormitories, is much larger, 6.5.)

In general, McWater said, C.B. 3 has always supported getting as much affordable housing for the district as possible.

The modifications to include more streets where I.Z. could be used were made as a result of amendments C.B. 3 submitted to City Planning on July 7. C.B. 3 asked for I.Z. on any avenue wider than 75 feet, including, for example, Essex and Allen Sts.

“My understanding is that it’s only north of Houston St. that we’re getting I.Z. on additional avenues,” said McWater. That fact puts the lie to opponents’ charge that the rezoning is splitting the district into a “rich north” and “poor south,” he said.

McWater added that the current plan is the largest downzoning in New York City history and the third-largest rezoning ever in Manhattan. Currently, there is no height limit on development in the East Village and Lower East Side. The rezoning plan would remove the height bonus allowed under the community facilities zoning allowance.

As pressure mounted before Wednesday’s City Planning hearing, joining together at press conference last Thursday to voice support for the rezoning were several local affordable housing groups, including Asian Americans for Equality, the Cooper Square Committee, Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) and Lower East Side People’s Mutual Housing Association.

“Any attempted delay in this plan could only serve people like Donald Trump and the developers,” said Valerio Orselli of the Cooper Square Committee. “Wild West development is taking place on the Lower East Side. We believe something has to be done to preserve it. What we can do is place limits on the zoning so it’s not wild and crazy. Inclusionary zoning will allow us to bend a little bit.”

Added Damaris Reyes of GOLES: “There’s been a lot of controversy about who’s being protected. Sixty percent of people who live in the zones are of color.”

Mary Spink of L.E.S.M.P.H.A. lashed out at the plan’s detractors, saying: “It infuriates me when people work for years to better the community and garbage is thrown in their faces.”

Wing Lam, head of Chinese Staff Workers, slammed the press conference participants.

“They’re poverty pimps,” he said of AAFE, GOLES, Cooper Square Committee and L.E.S.P.M.H.A. “They don’t do no good for the people. Look at AAFE — they’re like Donald Trump in Chinatown.”

Allowing 145-foot-tall buildings on Chrystie St. while other streets have lower height caps is unfair, he said. “How can you put a plan like that on the Chinese?” he asked. “Only white [people] like low buildings and sunlight and Chinese don’t like low buildings and sunlight? We don’t like tall buildings.”

By the same token, Lam said, putting I.Z. across from the Avenue D projects, which are heavily Latino, also smacks of “racism.” Lam also said that because the rezoning doesn’t include the housing projects east of Avenue D they are being put at risk of privatization. But McWater said rezoning wouldn’t protect them from being sold, anyway, and that because they are 14 stories tall, including them would have raised the rezoning area’s height cap, under a formula City Planning uses.

“The big concern we got from City Planning is to put affordable housing on what they would call ‘white blocks,’” McWater said, referring to I.Z. being added to Second and First Aves. and Avenue A. “The Chrystie St. I.Z. had nothing to do with it being Chinatown: It was suggested that Chinatown could use more affordable housing, and Chrystie St. was extra-wide. And the idea is that if you put a 12-story building on Avenue D, it’s more contextual than Avenue A.”

None of what is considered Chinatown's traditional "core" is in the rezoning area, McWater noted, since City Planning wouldn't allow the rezoning to include any areas west of Third Ave. He added that “white people” who were protesting construction of New York University’s new dorm on the former St. Ann’s Church site on E. 12th St. wanted their block included in the rezoning, too, but were also rejected, since the site is too far west of Third Ave. All of Chinatown that is located inside C.B. 3 is included in the rezoning plan, he said.

McWater said allowing 145-foot-tall buildings on Chrystie St. would translate into more total units than were they 120-foot-tall buildings, and, thus, more permanent affordable units, based on the 20 percent I.Z. formula.

The former C.B. 3 chairperson said the board, in 2006, supported the 145-foot height cap for Chrystie St. after receiving a memo in support of it from the Rebuild Chinatown Initiative, which was founded by AAFE. However, McWater said the coalition supporting affordable housing on Chrystie St. is “much broader” than the opposing coalition, which he called little more than a spin-off of Chinese Staff and Workers. “Since all this nonsense,” McWater said, referring to the opponents’ protests that have disrupted C.B. 3 meetings, “we’ve backed off on Chrystie St. — and I don’t think it will be part of the final plan.”

McWater said including I.Z. on Chrystie St. is now an “actionable alternative,” meaning the district’s city councilmember, Alan Gerson, will have the final say on whether it happens.

McWater advised that if Lam and Chinese Staff and Workers want a rezoning for the rest of Chinatown, they better start working on it in earnest now: The East Village/Lower East Side rezoning plan will be approved by the end of November, and Lam will lose his “leverage” if he doesn’t act by then, McWater said.

Asked on Tuesday, the day before the City Planning hearing, whether he expect that he will support the plan for 145-foot-tall buildings with I.Z. on Chrystie St., Councilmember Gerson stated that he couldn’t say at this point. He said he and Councilmember Rosie Mendez had a meeting scheduled with Deputy Mayor Robert Lieber for Tuesday afternoon “to review a range of concerns — everything interrelates. One of our goals,” Gerson said, “is to expand the amount of affordable housing that will be created here. We also have to protect the areas outside of the rezoning.

“At this point, we’re in the negotiating phase,” Gerson continued. “Clearly, there’s a diversity of opinion in Chinatown. We need to have a more comprehensive review of the future of rezoning in Chinatown.”

Gerson downplayed his having the decisive call on Chrystie St., though did admit he will have “significant input” on the matter.

Noting the uniform land use review procedure, or ULURP, for the rezoning is a long process, he said, “We still have weeks and months of negotiations ahead of us.”

Speaking of public reviews, McWater is incredulous that Lam and his allies continue to claim the rezoning plan was a “secret plan.” Lam said of C.B. 3, “All they needed to do is call a press conference and all the reporters would have been there.”

“There were town hall meetings on the rezoning by former Councilmember Margarita Lopez and Borough President Scott Stringer…a standing-room only hearing,” McWater said. “If you Google me, 93 percent of my hits — I don’t know, a lot — are about rezoning. Chinese papers covered it, The Villager covered it, The Village Voice covered it, the Daily News covered it, NY 1 covered it… It’s just impossible to say people didn’t know about it.”

Echoed Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, “The plan was developed through three years of hearings through a very public and inclusive process. Not everyone is happy with every part of the plan — and I’m not, either — but I think it’s undeniable that every segment of the public was given an opportunity to participate. I don’t know, but I think there is a lot of misinformation out there.”

As for Stringer, on Monday he came out in favor of the rezoning.

Beyond Chinese Staff and Workers, the East Village/Lower East Side rezoning has become a touchstone for local antigentrification activists, as well. At a book-launch party for Q. Sakamaki’s photo book on the explosive Tompkins Square Park scene of the late 1980s, held at Bluestockings bookstore on Allen St., last week, Sakamaki asked audience members to share their thoughts; the rezoning came up repeatedly.

Referring to a man who was arrested at a C.B. 3 meeting in May for vociferously protesting the rezoning, local journalist Bill Weinberg, speaking at Sakamaki’s event, told the audience it was inspiring to him.

“Hopefully,” he said, “we can see some kind of spirit of resistance rekindled in this neighborhood — before it’s too late.”

As for AAFE’s Kui, he brushed off Lam’s barbs and said Chinatown must press on to address “the real issues.” “Rather than dignifying these unwarranted personal attacks with a response that diverts attention from the real issues,” Kui said, “we need to focus our energies to preserving our neighborhoods from gentrification and fighting for more affordable housing for the community.”

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