Lower East Side Rezone Sparks Border War in Chinatown


What was meant to be a wonky town-hall meeting last week in the Lower East Side about zoning and building-height protection for just about everywhere in the area but Chinatown erupted into a screaming match between the community-board chair and at least 60 protesters holding signs declaring Mayor Mike Bloomberg a racist.

The ruckus at P.S.20 on Essex Street began when Wing Lam, director of the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, interrupted the introductions at the May 12 meeting to demand translation for the many Chinese and Spanish speakers in attendance. David McWater, chair of Community Board 3, refused, saying that there was no money to hire translators. After Lam whipped the crowd into an earsplitting frenzy, McWater’s face reddened with rage, and he called the cops to remove the rabble-rousers.

And that was only the first argument of the evening. Several more times, the proceedings were interrupted by screaming chants, unsuccessful attempts by the cops to quiet things down, and finally a mass walk-out by protesters. It was a loud and clear example of the growing and racially tinged tension over just what parts of the Lower East Side and East Village will be protected from aggressive developers.

The dispute has touched a nerve across the city. Joining the May 12 protest were members of the Sunset Park Alliance of Neighbors, a Brooklyn group that successfully pressured a developer to scale down a high-rise last year. Harlemites also showed up en masse. Many of them are members of Voices of the Everyday People, a group that has filed a lawsuit to stop the rezoning of 125th Street for fear that long-time black residents will be displaced.

Lam, along with the newly formed Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the LES, contended during the raucous meeting that the rezoning is part of Bloomberg’s city-wide plot to price out all people of color. McWater countered that residents’ concerns about gentrification are overblown and termed the protesters’ tactics “horseshit.”

The plan at the heart of the dispute would create building-height limits and affordable-housing incentives for developers within an 111-block area in the north part of Community District 3. What’s left out of the protection area is at issue. For three years, the community board and the Department of City Planning have been working on the plan to prevent more high-rises from sprouting up unchecked. But in the past two months, the plan’s boundaries have come under fire.

The area to be rezoned is bounded by East 13th Street to the north, Avenue D to the east, Grand and Delancey streets to the south, and Third Avenue and the Bowery to the west. But it leaves out a major part of District 3: Chinatown, the Bowery, and the far East Side.

Fears that the rezoning, by reining in developers in much of the Lower East Side, will push high-rises into Chinatown and drive up the rents there are ratcheting up the volume of protests.

“It’s really blatantly racist, the way they drew their boundaries,” said Josephine Lee, an organizer at the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the LES. “The rezoning plan is not so much to protect the East Village as it is to displace the communities of people of color within and around it.”

Along with the boundaries—which opponents obviously want expanded to include Chinatown—protesters took offense at the city’s description of “affordable housing.” The rezoning plan calls for “incentives” that would allow residential developers to build larger buildings if they make 20 percent of their units “affordable.” In the city’s parlance, some of the “affordable” units are targeted for a family of four with a maximum income of $55,000, but family incomes in much of Chinatown are below $30,000, which means that current residents of Chinatown still wouldn’t find such units affordable. “It is obviously not for us,” Lam said. The disparity prompted one person at the meeting to stand up and shout: “Why are we settling for incentives when we all know we need guarantees? And why are we settling for ‘affordable’ housing when we all know we need low-income housing?”

McWater dismisses the contention that the “affordable” units would be beyond the reach of most residents: “If I could raise a wand and make it so everybody gets an apartment for $500 a month regardless of their income, I would,” he tells the Voice. “What they’re demanding is impossible. They want the 111-block rezoning to stop and start over to include Chinatown.” The city, he said, has already spent millions of dollars on the current rezoning plan. He also dismisses the criticism of the current boundaries: “The impetus to include the area north of Houston was that it seemed to be under an imminent threat, and you can’t say that about Chinatown then or now.”

Because of the way Lam and McWater have squared off, there may be little hope for a compromise as the plan goes through several more months of review.

“Until this bastardization of the process by Wing Lam a couple months ago,” says McWater, “it was a beautiful process to watch. There are 165,000 people in Manhattan Community District 3. Getting 50 or 60 of them to scream and holler because you lied to them about stuff is not that impressive. They’re just embarrassing themselves.”

Lam’s take on McWater is more succinct: “The chair is a jerk.”