Volume 78 - Number 29 / December 17 - 23, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Chinatown group will consider: What is Chinatown?

By Julie Shapiro

The fledgling Chinatown Working Group has a to-do list a mile long, and the first item on the list is to find a bigger meeting space.

That need became apparent on the afternoon of Dec. 1, when more than 35 people packed into a conference room for the working group’s monthly meeting. Acting Chairperson Jim Solomon was happy to see the crowd, since it means word of the group is spreading.

Solomon, chairperson of Community Board 2’s Chinatown Committee, formed the working group several months ago with Chinatown leaders and representatives from elected officials, along with Community Boards 1, 2 and 3. The group grew out of concern over Chinatown’s future, especially in light of the city’s decision to rezone the East Village and the Lower East Side, while leaving out much of Chinatown.

The challenges for the working group are many: Chinatown was dealt a major blow on 9/11, and while the area is recovering, the current economic downturn will not help. Some worry that developers who can no longer build tall towers in the East Village as a result of the rezoning will turn to Chinatown, replacing affordable housing with luxury high-rises, and family-owned stores with high-end retailers.

The working group’s goal, Solomon said, is to advocate for the neighborhood’s affordability, preservation and revitalization. For now, though, the group is occupied with more basic tasks of determining its mission, membership, operating structure and purview.

City Councilmember Alan Gerson attended the Dec. 1 meeting and spoke about the promises the city made in the wake of the East Village/Lower East Side rezoning. These include helping the Chinatown Working Group with a comprehensive plan for Chinatown and requesting that the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation allocate $150,000 to the group to hire an urban planner.

The money isn’t a sure thing, but it might as well be, Gerson said, noting, “The mayor gets 99 percent of what he asks for.” The mayor appoints half the members to the L.M.D.C. board.

The working group may decide to push for a rezoning of Chinatown, but they need more information to decide whether rezoning is necessary.

One question that received much debate at the meeting was how to define the boundaries of Chinatown. Some people suggested looking at a broad area that encompassed the entire Lower East Side, while others wanted to keep a tighter focus on Chinatown’s core.

Michael Levine, director of land use and planning for C.B. 1, suggested the broad boundaries to represent where the Asian-American population might expand. If the group decides to look at rezoning Chinatown, that could concern a smaller area, he said.

Solomon said it’s important to balance inclusion with effectiveness — the broader the group’s scope, the harder it will be to get anything done.

“I don’t think anyone here hopes that at the end we have a report and it’s nothing more than a piece of paper or a PDF file,” he said, emphasizing his desire for action.

Solomon appointed a subcommittee to study the boundary question.

The Chinatown Working Group will meet at the beginning of January for local groups to begin signing onto the mission statement, and at its February meeting it will hold elections for officers. The group’s subcommittees will meet regularly throughout each month.

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