Volume 80, Number 27 | December 2 - 8, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Photo by Lesley Sussman
Saying clean streets reflect well on Chinatown, members of the Chinatown Part-nership Local Development Corporation turned out to back the BID plan at C.B. 3’s Nov. 23 meeting.
In Chinatown, groups battle over a proposal for new BID
By Lesley Sussman
A civic association that wants to create a Chinatown business improvement district ran into some strong resistance at Community Board 3’s full board meeting on Tues., Nov. 23.
Members of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation’s BID Steering Committee were scheduled to appear at the board’s 6:30 p.m. meeting at P.S. 20, 166 Essex St., to elicit C.B. 3’s support for the plan.
But before they even had an opportunity to make their presentation, steering committee members found themselves under attack by a member of C.B. 3’s Chinatown Working Group and representatives of the Coalition Against the Chinatown BID, a business and property-owners group that does not believe Chinatown should have a business improvement district — known as a BID, for short — of any kind.
The Chinatown Partnership L.D.C. is seeking a BID designation because a $5.4 million government grant that has paid for extra street cleaning and garbage pickup is about to expire. Community leaders are concerned that Chinatown would revert to the conditions that prevailed before the cleanup program began.
The new BID would be a public-private partnership in which property owners would pay annual assessment fees for extra cleanup of Chinatown’s streets and for other business improvements. It would also advocate for a fair share of government services for the district.
Landlords may pass on the assessment to their commercial tenants. Residential properties are assessed at a lower rate than commercial ones, and properties owned and occupied by nonprofit groups do not generally pay an assessment. At least 50 percent of property owners must approve of the plan, though generally BID’s are only started when there is much more substantial support.
The BID’s board would be responsible for developing the budget and determining the rate of assessment needed to fund the services provided by the BID. Property owners would on average pay an assessment of approximately 3 to 5 percent of their annual property taxes.
Members of the Coalition Against the Chinatown BID, however, contend that hiring a private street-sweeping service that would be paid for by BID revenues is not the sole solution for Chinatown’s sanitation problems, and that the Chinatown Partnership L.D.C. is not qualified to advocate for government services. They also noted that since the 1990’s, Chinatown-area property owners have twice rejected BID’s.
The fireworks started early at the C.B. 3 meeting when the evening’s first speaker blasted the Chinatown Partnership for not participating in the efforts of C.B. 3’s Chinatown Working Group, a community-based planning initiative for the Chinatown area.
Rob Hollander, a C.W.G. member, said that the Chinatown Partnership was being “divisive” by not participating in the group’s efforts to form a comprehensive development plan for the area.
“I’m concerned about this BID,” Hollander said. “We have, right now, a Chinatown Working Group where all the different voices in the area are coming together for the first time. Instead, they’re bypassing the Chinatown Working Group and creating a division,” he said of the Partnership.
Hollander was followed by several speakers from The Coalition Against the Chinatown BID. Jan Lee, a coalition organizer, charged the L.D.C. with misusing grant money in its quest to form a Chinatown BID.
He said that the Partnership had received millions of dollars in post-9/11 grant money from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation based on specific tasks it would accomplish.
“But instead of adhering to their original mission, [the L.D.C.] has squandered public funds in pursuit of forming a Chinatown BID, which is not what their grant money was for,” Lee charged.
Lee added that more than 150 businesses — many of them along the critical Mott St. commercial corridor — have signed a petition opposing the BID.
“We do not agree with this attempt to ‘unify’ Chinatown under a pay-to-play system of politics,” Lee asserted. “The dubious track records of many BID’s in the city stand as testimony against a BID for Chinatown.”
Philip Grossman, an attorney for the coalition, joined in the attack. He told C.B. 3 board members that an analysis he made of the Chinatown Partnership’s expenditures revealed that only 31 percent of its $5.4 million Clean Streets Program grant was being used for sanitation purposes.
“It’s outrageous and unreasonable,” Grossman said. “They’re going to waste any BID grants they get. It’s a bad idea to let the Chinatown Partnership go through with its plan.”
A Chinatown Partnership spokesperson later denied the charge. He said Grossman had failed to look at the records of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, which, as part of an arrangement with the L.D.C., was “making payments directly to the contractor” in charge of the cleanup effort. “Those payments were not reflected on the C.P.L.D.C.’s books,” the spokesperson added.
David Louie, a Chinatown Partnership steering committee member and chairperson of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of New York, also denied the charges, and said it was time for opponents of the BID plan to “calm down.”
“I’ve heard a lot of unkind and untrue remarks,” Louie told C.B. 3 board members. “A BID is the best way to improve the quality of life in Chinatown. The BID would not be a dividing factor but a unifying one. It’s unkind and unfair to say we don’t have a broad spectrum of support.”
Louie added that in surveys taken on the proposed BID, 97 percent of community property owners who voted declared their support for a BID. Another 600 business owners and residents wrote letters of support, he said, including longtime community groups, such as the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, the Chinatown American Legion post and the Canal St. Jewelry Association.
Louie was joined by Patrick Yau, executive director of the First American International Bank, who said the Partnership had put together a “broadly based group in support of this plan, and we’ve submitted documents to show the support we have.”
Yau said Chinatown’s top three community needs were sanitation, affordable housing and jobs. In other surveys conducted by the Chinatown Partnership, he said, “The overwhelming issue for all respondents was improving Chinatown’s sanitation.
“That’s why clean streets will be our number one mission, along with advocating for more government money for Chinatown,” he added. “We just want to keep our community clean, something we’re already doing successfully under a government grant that is about to expire.”
Also supporting the BID plan was City Councilmember Margaret Chin.
“For Chinatown, it’s a moment of self-determination,” she said. “I urge Community Board 3 members to be supportive of the BID.”
Chin later said charges that the Chinatown Partnership L.D.C. was being divisive by not participating in meetings of C.B. 3’s Chinatown Working Group were simply untrue.
“This BID group has been working on this for the past four years — long before the Chinatown Working Group was even organized,” she noted.
Gigi Li, co-chairperson of the Chinatown Working Group, said the clash of opinions about the BID was not tearing the Chinatown community apart.
“There are very strong opinions on both ends,” Li said. “And I would welcome a presentation by them in front of the members of the Chinatown Working Group. That would show an additional level of outreach to the community.”
Li added that she had already invited Wellington Chen, the Partnerhship’s executive director, to attend the Chinatown Working Group’s next meeting.
“He has an outstanding invitation to come before us, but is not required to do so,” she said.
Li said the whole issue will be discussed in greater depth at C.B. 3’s upcoming Economic Development Committee meeting, when the committee will recommend what position the full board should take on the matter.
The current government grant awarded to the Chinatown Partnership L.D.C. expires Dec. 31. The Partnership must not only get approval for the BID plan from Community Boards 1, 2, and 3, but also from the City Council. The first-year BID budget would be $1.3 million, the vast majority of which would be used for sidewalk cleaning and trash removal.
The boundaries of the BID district currently under consideration are Broome St. on the north; Broadway on the west; Allen and Rutgers Sts. on the east; and White, Worth and Madison Sts. on the south.