Volume 81, Number 17 | September 29 - October 5, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Chinatown BID O.K.’d, but opponents vow to fight on

BY ALINE REYNOLDS 

After a highly contentious debate in the Chinatown community, the City Council unanimously voted in favor of the Chinatown Business Improvement District on Wed., Sept. 21. Mayor Bloomberg signed the legislation this Tuesday night.

More than three-quarters of the BID’s first-year budget of $1.3 million will be allocated to supplemental sanitation services, while the remaining funds will finance holiday lighting, maintenance of street lampposts and furniture and other area services.

Assessment fees range from $1 for condo owners to up to $5,000 for large property owners, the majority of whom will pay $700 annually. About three-quarters of the district’s 2,300 property lots will owe $1,000 or less per year.

Regarding trash, the Council advised the future BID to increase garbage collection before 8 a.m. based on concerns raised by local business and property owners.

“The BID will enhance and retain business in Chinatown by supplying very significant sanitation services within the BID’s boundary,” said Council Speaker Christine Quinn at a Sept. 21 press conference announcing the City Council’s vote.

The BID won’t be up and running until next year, since it typically takes between four and nine months for BIDs to be established once the are approved by the Council, according to a Department of Small Business Services spokesperson.

Councilmember Margaret Chin deemed the BID’s passage a victory for the neighborhood that was a long time coming.

“This is a historic moment for us in the community and we will celebrate,” Chin said. “The bottom line is Chinatown residents and business owners deserve clean streets, more customers and prosperity. Now, Chinatown will be ready to join the rest of Lower Manhattan in its rebirth. We will be able to enjoy a clean environment that’ll be great for everyone.”

Rather than garner additional support, however, the Council’s sweeping pro-BID vote only fanned the flames among the initiative’s chief opponents, including local property owner Jan Lee. Lee, who helped amass 600 objections to the BID as part of an anti-BID campaign over the summer, said he was disappointed in the City Council for “completely ignoring any further investigation about the legitimacy of whether or not the community wants” the BID.

Nevertheless, Lee is “optimistic” that the BID is a temporary entity rather than a permanent fixture in Chinatown. He and fellow property owners that objected to the BID’s approval are even considering taking legal action against the entity once it’s formed.

“We’re going to continue with protesting, Freedom of Information Law requests and inquires,” said Lee. “We will use every resource available to us until the BID is fully dismantled.”

According to the Department of Small Business Services, BIDs can be dissolved if at least 51 percent of the district’s property owners, or alternatively the property owners of 51 percent of the district’s total assessed value, submit written petitions to the City Council.

“The BID law makes provisions for BIDs that have been installed and are unpopular,” said Lee. “We will make every effort to prove legally that this is not only unpopular, but that it was installed completely under dubious conditions.”

Lee and other property owners are now fearful of losing their ground-floor commercial tenants, some of whom have said they would have to close shop if they incur an additional expense due to the new BID fees.

Sam Kwok, owner and manager of Shanghai Asian Manor, at 21 Mott St., would have to fork over hundreds of dollars more to Lee annually once the BID is in place. As a result, Kwok said he might have to shut down his restaurant. All 30 of his employees would be out of work since he wouldn’t be able to afford opening his business at another location.

“I’m very upset,” said Kwok. “We can maintain streets on our own. We don’t need an organization to do this.”

“I’m worried I might not have my job,” said Kelly Chang, the restaurant’s assistant manager. “It’s not easy to find a job nowadays, so if he closes, it’s really bad. Hopefully, a miracle happens.”

An added fee would be an insult to injury for Robert Purnick, owner of Mott St. retail store Whole World Fashion Boutique, who said he might have to shutter his business because revenues are declining every month. Purnick and other local business owners already are responsible for paying private carting companies to collect their trash.

“It just seems like a total waste,” Purnick said of the BID. “We have to clean in front of our stores and pay for sanitation anyhow.”

“I find it pretty unfair. We pay the tax already, and the city’s supposed to do the cleaning,” echoed Mee Wong, who owns property at 88-90 Walker St. “We don’t need a duplicate expense to clean the street.”

Councilmember Chin, however, contends that BIDs are needed precisely to help businesses flourish, not to hinder their success. The assessment fees, she explained, will be offset by the profits businesses will rake in from the increased clientele the BID will help draw by way of signage, advertising and other publicity.

“When we attract more business into the community and the community becomes more prosperous, I think a lot of these business owners will also be able to prosper and pay the fees,” said Chin.

Other property and business owners believe the BID will supply much-needed supplemental services. Wellman Wu, who owns buildings on Mott and Canal Sts., said he isn’t worried about the assessment fees.

“I just consider that as part of our business expense,” Wu said. “People do some service, you have to pay for it. If it’s a dirty area, then we will lose our customers.”

Peter Lau, who owns and runs two pharmacies in Chinatown, believes the area’s improved streetscape will enhance Chinatown’s reputation and, in turn, generate higher revenues.

“As local residents and business owners, we feel we are uplifted in a way by cleaner streets,” said Lau. “And, if you have better lighting, people will want to come and shop more, and the neighborhood will become more desirable.”

But Bethany Li, a staff attorney at the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, warned that the gentrification caused by the BID would eventually lead to the displacement of local residents and small businesses.

“The developers are quoted as saying they’re welcoming the approval of the BID because they see it as a nice link and next step toward rezoning Canal St. to allow for more luxury high-end development,” said Li.

Councilmember Chin, however, insisted that the BID will improve the quality of life in Chinatown without ousting residents or businesses.

“I do not buy the argument that a BID will cause gentrification or a rapid increase in property values. That’s not the way it works,” she said. “These criticisms are leveled by the same people who oppose any and all efforts to make our community better.”

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