By Matt Townsend
A Chinese-American man stood behind the microphone during public testimony at Community Board 3’s recent full board meeting and ranted about what he saw as an unfair rezoning plan that left his community behind.
“We cannot lose Chinatown,” he said through a translator. “We will not give up Chinatown. We have a small amount of space and we are going to protect Chinatown.”
Chinatown labor groups organized a group of about 50 people, mostly Chinatown residents, to attend the March 25 meeting and protest the massive 114-block rezoning plan that will limit how tall buildings can be built in the East Village, Lower East Side and a few blocks of Chinatown. They sat in the seats of the auditorium at P.S. 20 on Essex St. and held signs that read: “Stop Racist Rezoning” and “Include the Entire Community in the Plan.” The signs and the lively testimony made good theater for New York 1, which had a news crew at the meeting. At one point, the station’s cameraman used his hand to direct the crowd to cheer for the camera.
“This racism must not continue,” said Josephine Lee, an organizer with Chinese Staff and Workers Association. “They must include the entire community into the zoning plan.”
If the rezoning becomes law, some believe the change will push luxury buildings like the high-rises that have jaggedly remade the skyline in the Lower East Side and East Village to Chinatown. The rezoning would cap building heights in the East Village and Lower East Side, making areas like Chinatown that lack such zoning protections all the more attractive to developers.
Bowery activists have made similar claims about the impact the rezoning would have on the Bowery, which also is not included in the plan.
“I don’t think this area should be gentrified,” said community organizer Wah Lee through a translator during public testimony. “In Chinese, the word for ‘gentrified’ also means ‘expensive housing.’ ”
A parade of speakers came to the stand-up microphone in front of the auditorium’s stage next to a folding table where the community board members sat. As the speakers articulated their outrages in Chinese, Spanish and English, the board members appeared uninterested. They rarely looked at the speakers one fiddled with a BlackBerry-like device, another typed on a laptop and others conversed and looked at the kitchen timer on the table to see when each speaker’s time ended. Midway through the public testimony a board member in the audience wanted to make sure that everyone knew an important piece of information the agenda for that night’s meeting didn’t include the rezoning plan.
And that’s the crux of this story disconnect. The protesters, who said they recently found out about the rezoning, showed up to rail against a plan that wasn’t on the agenda. The plan actually is in the final stages of approval and should be voted on by the City Council later this year. But the turnout does suggest that a movement against high-priced development in Chinatown might have gained more momentum.
“It’s Chinatown that’s why the rezoning doesn’t include Chinatown,” said Steven Wong, a Chinatown activist. “What are the Chinese going to do anyway? We supposed to be a code of silence. We supposed to listen to everybody. We don’t want to rock the boat. But we will.”
Community Board 3 member John Leo sat in the audience and listened to his fellow Chinese-Americans speak. After they finished, he took the microphone off its stand and addressed them in English and then Chinese. He told them to get more involved and be more productive.
“We’re not disagreeing with what they are saying,” said Leo, who works for the Chinatown Partnership, an economic development group. “But you have to be part of the process and help us make a change, instead of coming here and saying that we are racist.”
The protest organizers believed that the zoning had been planned away from public scrutiny and that Chinatown and other areas had been deliberately discounted and left uninformed. They also mentioned the 9/11 attack as a reason that they didn’t know about the rezoning.
“After 2001, we were working to rebuild the city,” Lee said. “We were calling on the government to call for health protections for the toxic air. All this time, we’ve been working around the health issues. And during this time, a lot of the planning that was going on was behind the door. A lot of it was pushed through without the community knowing about it.”
The board started holding public meetings on a community-led rezoning in 2005 and, according to board chairperson Dave McWater, once the Department of City Planning agreed to be a partner in the plan and make large-scale rezoning possible, the city took rezoning Chinatown off the table. City Planning paid for a soon-to-be-released environmental impact study, a required step in the rezoning process, that costs more than $2 million a sum the community board couldn’t afford.
“If we stop and say we don’t want this 114-block area because you didn’t include everybody, we’re basically walking away from the entire rezoning,” McWater told the meeting. “The smart way is to continue to try to rezone areas on our own that are outside of the 114-block zoning.”
Josephine Lee admitted that she didn’t blame the community board members that the plan didn’t include Chinatown.
“We’re not saying it’s Community Board 3,” she said. “They might have gone to D.C.P. and said completely no [on the rezoning plan]. But we’re saying that Community Board 3 should take a stance with us.”