Monday, June 14, 2010

A Tale of Two Cities?

The WSJ reports on the controversy surrounding planned development along Canal Street in NY's Chinatown-and we immediately saw some parallels with what's going on in Flushing: "A group of real-estate developers have commissioned a study to rethink Canal Street as they ratchet up a controversial effort to allow for taller buildings along Chinatown's main thoroughfare. The developers say that Canal Street's role as a major transit hub and commercial center means they should be allowed to build high-rise offices and apartments in place of the low-slung buildings that occupy much of the street. But they'll have to overcome concerns that their push would damage Chinatown's economy and heritage."

So, once again-as is the case with the Flushing Commons project-large real estate interests are proposing the kind of development that will put indigenous, and, yes, Asian, small business interests at risk: "But some Chinatown groups are pushing a competing plan for rezoning the neighborhood that would largely limit new development. Josephine Lee, a spokeswoman for Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, argued that allowing more dense, high-rise development along Canal Street would destroy Chinatown's vitality. "Chinatown is a thriving economy—it's small-business driven," Ms. Lee said. "When those small businesses are gone and when those residents are gone, our economy is basically going to be dead."

That is precisely the argument being made by the Flushing Coalition for Responsible Development, whose leader Jim Gerson made the following point about the loss of vital municipal parking that would be an inevitable part of the Flushing Commons plan:

"I believe the impact of Flushing Commons as presently proposed will be devastating to local businesses especially during the evening hours. Just as in most other metropolitan areas or neighborhoods, there is a core focus which draws people and supports the non-core businesses. In the case of Flushing I believe the core is the quantity and variety of reasonably priced ethnic food (not unlike other "Chinatowns" around the world). These restaurants depend heavily on affordable parking. Affordable parking is the most important key to keeping Flushing vibrant.

During the day Flushing will lose their customers in one of two ways. Gridlock will frustrate some. Others will go to shop in nearby malls or other areas where parking is free. Flushing Commons, as now conceived by TDC, is as unsustainable a project as anyone could imagine. It needs to be thoroughly altered so that the interests of the small businesses of Flushing and its neighboring communities are maintained."

And as with Flushing, the opponents are seeking to downscale the size and scope of development-and have enlisted our good friend Tom Angotti's help: "The coalition that's trying to limit growth is working with Tom Angotti, an urban affairs and planning professor at Hunter College, to develop its proposal. "The Coalition to Protect Chinatown's priority is to support a different kind of development that's more in line with incremental, organic development within the community," Mr. Angotti said."

But while the Flushing issue is moving rapidly ahead, Chinatown plans are not as immediate: "Any rezoning of Canal Street would take several years. A recommended rezoning would have to go through the city's exhaustive land-use review process. It also would be subject to approval by City Council, who likely face would pressure from both sides."

What we are once again witnessing is the disdain for neighborhood retail-and the further unfolding of the Bloomberg mega-development model. It is time for the city council to pace greater restrictions on this kind of unsustainable building; and look to champion the small businesses that are crucial to the city's economic recovery.