Zoned Out: Chinatown and Lower East Side Residents and Business Owners Fight to Stay in New York City

By Li, Bethany Y. | Asian American Policy Review, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

Zoned Out: Chinatown and Lower East Side Residents and Business Owners Fight to Stay in New York City


Li, Bethany Y., Asian American Policy Review


Latino, Black, and low-income residents filled a town hall meeting of Manhattan's Community District 3 chanting "Chinatown, not for sale! Lower East Side, not for sale!" (Murray 2008).

Many of these residents had already gone to previous meetings to voice their opposition to the East Village/Lower East Side rezoning plan, a plan that excluded Chinatown and the predominantly immigrant portions of the Lower East Side. People were especially enraged at this meeting after community board members refused interpretation for non-English speaking residents, principally Chinese and Latino immigrants, in a long-time immigrant community district that includes Chinatown, the Lower East Side, Two Bridges, and the East Village. Furthermore, some Chinese and Latino residents, by virtue of being Chinese and Latino, had been denied entry to the meeting even though it was not entirely full. The rezoning plan, which the city council unanimously approved November 2008 and is now in effect, is the third-largest rezoning initiative in New York City since 1961 when the city last implemented broad land use changes (Murray 2008; Department of City Planning 2008a). Covering 111 city blocks in Manhattan's southeastern portion, the rezoning generally limits building heights in the East Village and parts of the Lower East Side to reflect existing building density while concentrating development along certain corridors. The plan also allows for voluntary inclusionary zoning, which permits a height bonus and more market-rate development space in exchange for creating some units of affordable housing (Murray 2008). Although the city purports that the plan provides incentives for affordable housing through the inclusionary zoning program, very little affordable housing is created because the program is voluntary and inflated income guidelines make most units unaffordable to the area's low-income residents.

By excluding Chinatown and parts of the Lower East Side and concentrating development near these lower-income areas, the rezoning has a serious potential for displacing low-income residents and small businesses from these neighborhoods--something the city downplays. In fact, the Executive Summary of the Department of City Planning's Final Environmental Impact Statement states, "The proposed actions would not cause any significant adverse impacts related to direct residential displacement, direct business displacement, indirect residential displacement, indirect business displacement, or effects on specific industries" (Department of City Planning 2008b).

A closer look, however, reveals a different story.

THE IMPORTANCE OF ZONING

At first glance, zoning seems too mundane and technical an aspect of city governance to be worth understanding. Changing streets from an R6 zone to an R7A zone or imposing a commercial overlay or a manufacturing district often appear so insignificant that people living in the community may never realize any changes have occurred. Yet the impact of these changes is very real. Zoning controls neighborhoods' physical boundaries, determines the height and bulk of buildings, and establishes which areas contain residential, commercial, or manufacturing uses. Zoning therefore dictates where market-rate development will or will not flourish.

Prior to the rezoning of the East Village and parts of the Lower East Side, overdevelopment affected almost the entire community district. Although rezoning does have the ability to protect neighborhoods, the East Village/Lower East Side rezoning fails to protect low-income communities of color, in particular, in Chinatown and the Lower East Side. In fact, White people comprise the majority of residents in the rezoned area, in stark contrast to the more than 70 percent of people of color living in Community District 3, according to analysis done by the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development (Angotti and Ervin 2008). (1)

Learning from communities like Harlem that had previously battled their own rezoning, residents and small business owners in Chinatown and the Lower East Side became engaged in what previously would have seemed banal land use discussions once they discovered the city's proposal to revise the zoning map in the East Village and parts of the Lower East Side. …

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