Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Chinatown's BID Roars

Into the complex relationships of Chinatown's political economy has entered a new and powerful player: the Chinatown BID.

Last night Community Board 3's Economic Development Committee, following a long public hearing on both sides, approved a proposed Chinatown Business Improvement District (BID), supported by Councilmember Chin. A Chinatown BID will significantly enhance Chinatown's commercial clout, and it will also enhance Chinatown's powerbrokers, both within Chinatown and in Community District 3 as well as in the broad city political landscape.

Because a BID is paid for in part by a tax on property owners, several property owners questioned last night why they should have to pay for services that the city itself should supply. Their objection is not so much a financial complaint, but an issue of inclusion. These property owners do not see themselves or their interests reflected in the promoters of the BID. The BID did not originate with them, they feel the BID progressed without them, and they anticipate that the BID will commercially develop and direct Chinatown without their voice.

The BID maintains that it will be open to all voices. However, its primary promoter, Chinatown Partnership, is a creature of Asian Americans for Equality, the most politically powerful organization in Chinatown. Both are close to the councilmember -- a founder and former board president of AAFE and Chinatown Partnership. In other words, the vote last night was a consolidation of political strength in Chinatown.

A couple of observers outside the BID area raised concerns about the effects of the BID on small businesses, which will bear a burden of cost, and the focus of the BID, which seems more concerned with tourism and upscaling commerce than labor and local residential community. Will the BID promote gentrification in Chinatown as the LES BID did, overseeing the gentrification of the LES and transformation of it into a nightlife strip and construction and hotel zone for overdevelopment?

The consequences of the Chinatown BID remain to be seen. I don't see how it will solve the deeper troubles within Chinatown -- the evaporation of the garment industry that sustained Chinatown throughout its expansion, and the threat of overdevelopment and the burden of real estate taxes on the old tenements. The BID's easiest goal will be tourism, which will help some local businesses, may drive out others, and could radically transform the local character. It will be a shame if in ten years Chinatown blogs have names like "ChinatownGrieve" and "Vanishing Chinatown" routinely complaining about the invasion of outsiders. Those are my worst-case scenario worries.

Howbeit, the vote last night is a great and unequivocal victory for the councilmember. She will say, of course, it is a victory for Chinatown, and in fact, she will now have an opportunity to make good on that claim. Political strength is a relation between leader and power base, whether commercial or residential. For my part, I don't believe there is one Chinatown. There are many. This was a victory for one aspect of Chinatown. It is Margaret Chin's task to play this card into a victory for all of Chinatown. If that play will begin, it will begin with healing.

Most of the meeting was remarkably respectful and orderly. The meeting was chaired by CB3's model committee chair, Richard Ropiak. Amidst the most controversial meetings, Ropiak always manages a smooth meeting. He assiduously avoids interjecting himself into the discussion (even when you can see he would like to), yet he keeps order firmly when necessary. As a result, everyone gets heard, everyone feels the hearing process is fair.

The BID has a few remaining hurdles to clear before it is made law, but the vote last night all but assures its success.