As Chinatown “remains on life support,” how will the next board member tackle its post-pandemic recovery?
On a recent Wednesday morning, Chinatown looked a bit more desolate than it did in the days before the pandemic – the “For Rent” signs hanging from the closed storefronts and the alfresco dining areas were nearly empty, all in contrast to the strings of the festive Lunar New Year. lanterns hung above the once bustling streets.
“It will probably take several years and several phases [recovery plan] to get back to 2019 levels, much like the 1918 pandemic, which took a decade, ”Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership (which works to uplift the neighborhood business community) told Gothamist / WNYC.
The neighborhood remains in the throes of economic desperation, with even notable restaurants shutting down – like Jing Fong on Elizabeth Street, the neighborhood’s largest dim sum restaurant that recently announced the permanent closure of its indoor dining room. Overlooking economic pain is the recent spike in attacks against Asian Americans, mirroring the wave of attacks before the pandemic began.
Chinatown is part of the 1st district of the Council, where current Board member Margaret Chin is in her final year in office. Charting a path for the district’s return – which coincides with the city’s broader economic recovery – now relies in part on seven contenders vying for the seat, each offering their own take on how to revive Chinatown and expand. pedestrian traffic.
A candidate, Christopher Marte, is considering ways to stop the bleeding. This means increasing pedestrian traffic by removing all obstacles, including ongoing construction projects. In an interview with Gothamist / WNYC, Marte, who nearly beat Chin in the 2017 race, said he was stopping construction of a city-run prison in the middle of the community remove disruption to existing businesses while facilitating travel.
“If this prison moves forward, Chinatown will literally be a construction site for the next six years,” Marte said, adding that the current reconstruction of 70 Mulberry Street, a cultural center destroyed by fire last year before pandemic– is an overview of the kind of disruption large-scale projects can cause to the neighborhood.
“This construction site has closed a lot of businesses on this street because they closed the street to traffic,” Marte said. “And a lot of small businesses like the local florist and a few small restaurants have already talked about how this small site has done so much damage to their business, even in this pandemic. “
In the long term, Marte plans to submit a community rezoning proposal to New York City Council that would preserve the stock of existing residential properties and small businesses. The rezoning plan, which was in the works long before the pandemic, seeks to curb real estate speculation and prevent increases in property taxes. The proposal requires a majority vote of the Council. If approved, it would initiate the public review process that has gone on for months.
But the “devil is in the details” for such a proposal, according to Gigi Li, another candidate who views a special zoning district as restrictive for existing homeowners. Li and Marte are arguably the first in the race, given the size of their campaign war chest and endorsements.
“Any change to their facade has to go through many rounds of approvals, and that increases the costs when they struggle to keep their building as it is, and now they are even more in difficult times because of COVID, “Li says.” Commercial rent has really been the stabilizing force for a lot of these small homeowners. “
In Li’s vision, the continued reconstruction of the cultural center at 70 Mulberry Street, which Mayor Bill de Blasio committed $ 80 million to rebuild-is vital for the recovery of Chinatown. This investment would go even further, Li said, if a space dedicated to the performing arts was built there. Li, who describes Chinatown as currently “on life support,” also argues that a strong tourism campaign for Chinatown can help build business.
That’s not to say that there isn’t an ongoing campaign to support existing businesses. Groups such as Send love to Chinatown and welcome to Chinatown have already launched marketing campaigns on behalf of less savvy social media merchants. Susan Lee, another candidate trying to get elected, said the campaign has already proven itself and just needs an injection of funds from the Council to grow, which she is ready to commit to.
By attracting more pedestrian traffic to Chinatown, Denny Salas, another contender, is proposing so-called “super blocks” that started in Barcelona, Spain. In this city, car traffic has been diverted to major highways to open its streets to pedestrians. It is similar to the city’s existing Open Streets program, but on a larger scale.
“On the business side, what they’ve seen is nothing more than an increase in foot traffic,” Salas said of the super bloc plan. “They have seen an increase in foot traffic where all of a sudden these businesses have flourished not just in super blocks, even in surrounding areas because they have more foot traffic.
The idea of expanding the Open Streets program is fostered by Jenny Low, another candidate vying for the seat. A similar proposal was considered by the city’s Department of Transportation for Mott Street between Bayard and Worth Streets but never took off.
But while these measures may help attract more foot traffic, they do not solve the problem of preventing commercial tenants and building owners from losing their livelihoods. Very high rents and property taxes are a decades-old problem in Chinatown. Low told us that if elected, she would use her experience as a banker to develop a distressed homeowner loan program.
And she realizes that with some businesses unlikely to return and unemployment rates still high, creating an employment program will benefit hundreds of job seekers, a plan similar to that proposed by Marte. As a former member of the Chinese American Planning Council, Low had developed a vocational training program geared towards the hospitality industry.
“Before COVID, we trained countless new immigrants with English skills, enough for them to work in the hospitality industry… cleaning staff or waiters. We trained them to have the skills and enough language, the English language to be placed in hotels that are union shops, ”Low recalled.
Salas, the superblock candidate, also ties the revitalization of Chinatown to the increase in housing stock. In addition to pushing for more Mitchell Lama subsidized housing for the middle class, which is currently available at Confucius Plaza, Salas also wants to increase funding for community land trusts by $ 5 million so that “long-term residents have their say in what goes on in the neighborhood. “
Maud Maron, another candidate, said – more immediately – that the first order of business to jumpstart the revitalization of Chinatown is to permanently reopen public schools five days a week and increase vaccinations for the community. eligible Asian. The same goes for including Chinatown in a zero-interest loan program that businesses in the community have not been allowed to apply to since the neighborhood shares its zip code 10013 with the wealthier SoHo and Tribeca. Maron, if elected, seeks to integrate Chinatown into such a loan program.
“New York City varies too much within a five-block radius and a 10-block radius to use the zip code blunt instrument. We have to be really mindful to make sure we are targeting help where it is needed. must go, ”Maron said.
This proposal mirrors that of Tiffany Winbush, another candidate who sees small business loans as an indicator of Chinatown’s recovery. Without access, small businesses can barely stay afloat, Winbush said. In addition, she said she would push for “unconditional grants” to store owners looking for a financial boost.
“It’s free money, you don’t have to pay it back, do whatever you need to do to stay open, survive and continue to thrive, and still be there after COVID,” proposed Winbush.
But she didn’t say exactly where traders would find such an injection of money. Given the city’s austerity budget, such an unconditional windfall will likely depend on how well the federal government listens to Chinatown’s financial woes. Currently, officials in Blasio’s administration say the city could receive nearly $ 6 billion in federal aid under the American Rescue Plan Act being developed by Congress.
The June 22 Democratic primary will likely determine who the next member of the district council will be. Wayne Ho, executive director of the Chinese American Planning Council, an advocacy group calling attention to issues in Asian-American communities, hopes any proposed relief plan should take a variety of factors into account.
“It tackles health issues, economic issues and community issues,” Ho said. “I would like people to go beyond sound bites or hashtags and have detailed plans for economic recovery. And that’s it, from supporting small businesses and ensuring the survival of small businesses to homeowners. Most of the buildings in Chinatown are owned by smaller landlords. ‘Cancel Rent’ is a nice hashtag, but if tenants don’t pay rent and businesses don’t pay rent, we still have to support these landlords who have to cover their cost of owning the building. So what are we doing to support small landlords? “