Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Post 12: DCP's first town hall and its consequences, AAFE's support for upzoning in Chinatown

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history.

At the town hall, a variety of concerns were voiced. Present was Phil DePaolo, whom I name here in full because Phil was instrumental, and I want to say heroic, in the eventual outcome of the criticism of the CB-DCP plans. While I was focused on understanding the zoning text and its local consequences of the CB-DCP proposed zoning designations, Phil explained to me the bigger picture, the consequences of a contextual zoning for adjacent neighborhoods. He opened my eyes to the full meaning of a rezoning. That understanding led to the creation of the Chinatown Working Group and more important, what became its motivating principle of comprehensive urban planning. Phil was dealing at the time with the consequences of Bloomberg’s rezoning of Williamsburg. Working with Kathe Newman of the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, he was able to show that restrictive rezonings drive developers to adjacent unrestricted neighborhoods.

Applied to the EV/LES rezoning, as Phil explained, developers would be driven from the EV/LES to the adjacent unrezoned areas including the Bowery and Chinatown. While the EV was already largely gentrified, as Brad Landers had pointed out in an earlier town hall, the Bowery and Chinatown had much more to lose from development. In the case of the Bowery it meant wholesale transformation and the displacement of a historical district and one of the few places where the indigent were welcome, and in the case of Chinatown, wholesale displacement of one of the last remaining ethnic enclaves and immigrant first destinations in Manhattan.

At the town hall, a variety of worries were voiced. Why were Avenue D and Houston Street being upzoned? Was the intent to upscale and gentrifiy the neighborhood? How would these upzonings impact the residents of the New York City Housing Authority residents (the NYCHA public subsidized project housing along the East River)? Some of us also objected to the exclusion of Chinatown and the Bowery but these objections fell on deaf ears. The town hall led to an alternative plan or series of amendments to the DCP plan devised by Harvey Epstein and Paul Bartlett, Harvey a former CB chair (and eventually our assemblymember) and Paul an active member of the CB and formerly an employee of DCP with expertise in zoning. They produced an 11 point amendment to the rezoning which recommended a lowered FAR for Houston Street in exchange a higher FAR for Chrystie Street. Unfortunately, these recommendations were set out as separate points so DCP accepted the upzoning of Chrystie Street point and rejected the point recommending the lowering of the Houston Street upzoning. I called the liaison from DCP, Arthur, who stated simply that DCP likes upzoning and doesn't like downzoning, so DCP accepted the upzoning the CB offered and rejected that Houston Street proposal. That is, they didn't treat it as an exchange at all, since they weren't given to them as a single item.

As a result, the greatest upzoning in the plan and its highest FAR allowance ended up in the one piece of the rezoning in Chinatown, on Chrystie Street. David, at a Task Force meeting, explained that he consulted "Chinatown" to find out whether such an upzoning would be acceptable to the Chinatown community. He called the Chinatown Revitalization Initiative, an organization closely allied to Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE), the largest affordable housing manager in Chinatown and perhaps its most influential non profit, with close ties to the EV political club that produces its councilmembers. RCI told him "the Chinese like density" (David's words), so they were fine with the upzoning.

The upzoning came with inclusionary housing -- a developers bonus that creates affordable housing which must be managed by an affordable housing non profit like AAFE. And not surprisingly, at the final DCP hearing on the rezoning, AAFE brought out its members to support the rezoning as one of its loudest supporters.

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