Volume 16 • Issue 41 | March 12 - 18, 2004

Hope grows to build ‘the Lincoln Center of Chinatown’

By Josh Rogers

The idea of opening a large cultural center in Chinatown moved from a dream to something closer to reality Thursday as the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. voted to spend $150,000 to study the best way to make it happen.

“It’s great,” said Fay Chew Matsuda, president of the Museum of Chinese in the Americas on Mulberry St. “It’s really about time we have a serious effort to look for a viable space for art and exhibitions and also for dance and performance spaces.”

Matsuda said the museum has a large collection of artifacts and when it organizes film screenings and dance performances, it does so outside of the neighborhood because there is so little space. The neighborhood once had several theaters that were later converted to cinemas showing Chinese movies, said Matsuda. After videos became popular many closed in favor of retail.

Matsuda was one of many neighborhood leaders who worked on CREATE, or the Committee to Revitalize and Enrich the Arts and Tomorrow’s Economy, which was formed by Councilmember Alan Gerson last year.

Gerson envisions “the Lincoln Center of Chinatown in terms of economic significance and cultural significance.” He said the center could draw on a diverse range of Asian art forms including Chinese opera, dance, calligraphy, martial arts and combine with “American cutting-edge hip.”

Anita Contini, the L.M.D.C.’s vice president of memorial and cultural affairs, said Rogers Marvel Architects, which has designed many museums and libraries in the city and is also working on the street improvements near the New York Stock Exchange, will help conduct the study. The study will look at feasibility, sites, and possible funding sources. She said the hope is to open a center “sooner rather than later” and build on the work of CREATE, but she didn’t know if a center would take five years or longer to open.

Gerson’s committee identified eight potential sites last year, although the list was not widely distributed and went mainly to potential developers. They are: 80 Centre St. in the former Dept. of Motor Vehicle building, 2 Howard St. in a garage owned by the federal government, 247 Canal St. on a privately owned vacant lot, 91 Bowery in the now vacant former Music Palace, at the corner of Chambers and Elk Sts. on a city-owned vacant lot, the warehouse under the Brooklyn Bridge, the area under the Manhattan Bridge and 139 Centre St. in a privately owned building with some floors vacant.

Gerson and several others interviewed said using part of the D.M.V. building may be the best option since it is owned by the state, has a lot of space and is in a good neighborhood location —across the street from Columbus Park. A few of the sites such as at Chambers and Elk are near, but not in Chinatown.

Christopher Kui, executive director of Asian Americans for Equality, agreed that the D.M.V. looked good.

“The motor vehicles site will be ideal because of its size and it connects City Hall and Chinatown,” he said.

Kui also likes the Howard St. building for similar reasons – it is big and could serve as a transition into Soho and Tribeca. Kui, whose group produced its own report nine months ago that included a cultural center recommendation, also worked with Gerson’s committee.

“Chinatown is a cultural treasure,” said Kui. “We have many activities and groups that are already here, but they need a center where people can congregate.”

CREATE was able to raise about $25,000 last year, much of it from a Chinese Opera fundraiser in the cramped auditorium of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association on Mott St.

The committee report surveyed seven Chinatown arts groups who said they would ideally need 146,000 square feet of space. A center could attract between 500,000 to one million people a year, the committee concluded. Matsuda, said her museum’s needs may be reduced slightly because they hope to complete a deal for a small space for some of their collection.

She thinks it would likely cost between $200 and $300 a square foot to build or renovate a new center, which means it could cost about $29 million to $44 million. The L.M.D.C., a state-city agency, has about $1.2 billion left in post-9/11 federal funds, but there are many different projects competing for the money.

Gov. George Pataki, who essentially controls the L.M.D.C., promised the feasibility study in a speech on Lower Manhattan in October.

Gerson praised the commitment of government leaders to the project. He said Dep. Mayor Daniel Doctoroff asked him last year to put together a package for one big project in Chinatown and to work on forming a consensus with the many factions in the neighborhood.

Gerson said he was proud neighborhood leaders came together particularly with two of his former political opponents on CREATE, Margaret Chin and Rocky Chin, who both lost to Gerson in 2001.

He thinks a site should be selected this year and even if it takes awhile to build, it will still be a victory.

“If we have to wait a few years, as long as the community knows that there is a commitment and that it’s coming,” Gerson said, “that will go a long way.”



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