Clean sweep in bitter BID battle as 3 boards say O.K.
By Lesley Sussman
Supporters of a business improvement district (BID) for the Chinatown area came a step closer this week to having their dream realized at a stormy meeting of Community Board 3. The meeting was marred by disruptions and a walkout by opponents who believe the BID plan would incur financial hardship for local small businesses.
But when all the tumult had finally calmed down, C.B. 3’s full board, which met on Tues., Dec. 21, at P.S. 20, 166 Essex St., voted almost overwhelmingly in favor of the district plan, which now needs to gain approval from the City Planning Commission and, ultimately, the City Council before it can be implemented.
The meeting, attended by nearly 200 people, was hailed as a victory by members of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation’s BID Steering Committee, which has already won approval for its plan from Community Boards 1 and 2.
Patrick Yau, executive director of the First American International Bank and a steering committee member, said he was very pleased with the support.
“This BID project is very important to the future of Chinatown,” he said. “I’m so happy that Community Board 3 predominantly supported its formation.”
The C.B. 3 vote was also touted as a “historic moment for Chinatown” by City Councilmember Margaret Chin, a longtime advocate for the BID plan.
“Now three community boards support the plan,” she said. “So it’s connecting all three neighborhoods. It’s historic and unprecedented because all the businesspeople in Chinatown will be working together with the different communities. It’s a great start.”
The Chinatown Partnership L.D.C., a civic association that believes Chinatown’s top community need is sanitation, followed by jobs and affordable housing, is seeking a BID designation because funding provided by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation in a program known as “Clean Streets” is about to run out. For the past three years, this program has paid for extra street cleaning and garbage pickup. Community leaders, however, are concerned that conditions in the already grime-plagued neighborhood would worsen if there was no replacement cleanup program to supplement the city’s street cleaning efforts.
The new BID would be a public-private partnership in which property owners pay annual assessment fees for extra cleanup of Chinatown’s streets and for other business improvements. The BID would also advocate for a fair share of government services for the district, undertake sidewalk cleaning and snow removal projects, sponsor holiday lighting, fight for traffic improvements and help existing businesses preserve the area’s unique small business character.
Assessments for the program would come from landlords, who would pass on the assessment to their commercial tenants. Also, residential properties would be assessed, but at a lower rate than commercial ones. Properties owned and occupied by nonprofit groups, generally, would not pay any assessment fees. At least 50 percent of property owners in the proposed district must approve of the plan, though generally BID’s are only started when there is much more substantial support.
Although it may have been just a few days before Christmas, it was anything but a silent night at the C.B. 3 meeting, as about 30 opponents to the district plan disrupted speakers in favor of the BID, waved placards, chanted slogans and then staged a walkout in protest over the way the meeting was being conducted. Things got so contentious at one point, that a police officer and school security guard asked a protester to leave the auditorium in an effort to calm him down.
The protest was organized by the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, and featured a coalition of property owners, businessmen and residents who have accused the Chinatown Partnership of misusing funds and not caring about working people in the neighborhood — charges the Partnership and other civic leaders have vigorously denied.
Speaking before the community board, C.S.W.A. organizer Josephine Lee, said, “Community Board 3 is being misled to believe that Chinatown wants a BID by a group of developers and politicians who are seeking to make money off the poor of this community.
“The city is already forcing us to pay higher taxes and fees and now this group wants us to pay for services the city should be taking care of,” Lee added. “Cleaning the streets is the city’s responsibility. But this group doesn’t care about small businesses here. They won’t be satisfied until all the Chinese are gone.”
What particularly infuriated protesters was a request by C.B. 3 Chairperson Dominic Pisciotta that those who were for or against the BID plan stand up so that he could get a better idea of who was who at the meeting.
“Is this the way you vote?” a woman angrily shouted out at Pisciotta. “It’s not fair.”
Moments later, members of the C.S.W.A. group angrily marched out of the auditorium in objection to the body count in which they were outnumbered by at least 2 to 1. Lee later told this newspaper, “If we knew they were going to do this, we would have brought more people with us.”
She also expressed anger over the meeting’s timing and location.
“It’s ridiculous that they didn’t go to East Broadway or somewhere else in Chinatown to hold this meeting so that more people could attend,” she said. “Why don’t they go to the streets and talk to the people? And why are they holding a meeting at a time when it’s the busiest for most business owners, so that they can’t attend?”
After the meeting, Pisciotta called the protesters’ arguments weak.
“If they were community organizers they should have brought in more people anyway,” he said. He also defended his actions regarding the body count, saying it was not an unusual procedure. “It’s often done in our committees,” he explained.
“We do this at our S.L.A. [State Liquor Authority] meetings to get an idea who’s supporting and opposing,” Pisciotta said. “And it didn’t matter if I had counted or not. It didn’t influence the vote because people could see who was here with their own eyes. We showed fairness by presenting an equal number of speakers on both sides of the issue.”
The chairperson added that the fact there was not a single “no” vote by any C.B. 3 board member regarding the district plan was further evidence that the body count did not in any way influence the board’s decision to approve the measure. Regarding the meeting’s timing and location, he said, “This is when and where we always have our community board meetings. It’s always here.”
The final vote on the BID also included several amendments. C.B. 3 board members said they wanted included in the plan a promise that when a BID board is formed it would review its activities and canvass the Chinatown community every three years.
Board members also asked that parks in the BID area be excluded from BID regulations and remain public. The proposed BID’s boundaries are currently being defined as Broome St. on the north; Broadway on the west; Allen and Rutgers Sts. on the east; and White, Worth and Madison Sts. on the south. C.B. 3 also recommended that the future BID board pay people engaged in cleaning work a “living wage,” as currently being proposed by the City Council.
The Council’s “living wage” bill would force developers and anyone else who receives subsidies from the city’s Economic Development Corporation and Industrial Development Agency to pay their workers at least $10 an hour with benefits and $11.50 an hour without benefits.
The BID would provide 30 entry-level cleaning jobs for people from the community. Its organizers envision a first-year budget of $1.3 million, with 78 percent used for sanitation services and the balance for holiday decorations and advocacy. If a BID is formed, up to $1.9 million from other government sources would be available, according to the Chinatown Partnership.