With Chinatown’s economy still fragile after 9/11, Community Board 3 has voted to write a letter of opposition to the creation of a Chinatown business improvement district, or B.I.D., because the associated fees would be too much for local businesses and landlords to bear, board members said.
Board members also accused the B.I.D.’s proponents of using deceptive tactics to build public support for the plan, a charge that the key supporter-a local real-estate magnate named Bill Lam-denied. However, Mr. Lam did admit that he and his partners were disorganized and understaffed, and that his helter-skelter presentations to the board may have caused some members to misunderstand his plans. He also defended his call for a Chinatown B.I.D., saying that an investment is needed to maintain the neighborhood as city services are rolled back during the current fiscal crisis.
Chinatown property owners initially met with Mr. Lam, the president of a nonprofit dubbed the Council for a Cleaner Chinatown, in December 2000. Mr. Lam announced that he wanted to transform the council into a Chinatown B.I.D., and he had Eva Tan, a lobbyist who had worked under Mayor Edward Koch, answer questions from the skeptical audience. However, not even Ms. Tan’s public-relations footwork could sway the crowd, and many left with a sour taste in their mouths.
Property owners didn’t hear another word from Mr. Lam or Ms. Tan until August of this year, when they received a letter from the council informing them that they had less than two weeks to write the council or the city if they opposed the B.I.D.’s creation.
The B.I.D. proposal worried local businessmen and landlords, many of whom were already bracing for the 18 percent property-tax increase. They said they would be crushed financially if they paid fees to a B.I.D. because of the already-high property taxes and the large number of rent-controlled apartments in the neighborhood. Forming a B.I.D.-which would derive its income from a special assessment charged to landowners-would actually drive family businesses out of the area, opponents said.
“There is a proverb that, translated from Chinese, says, ‘If my arm is bleeding, and I’m trying to close the wound, how can you ask me to donate blood?'” said Jan Lee, a Chinatown businessman and the chairman of the B.I.D.-opposition group Chinatown Coalition of Business and Property Owners.
Angered by the suddenness of the proposal and the lack of public discussion, property owners brought the matter before Community Board 3 on Nov. 20. After a series of discussions, the board voted to oppose the creation of a B.I.D. and accused Mr. Lam and Ms. Tan of using “a pattern of obfuscation and misrepresentation” to build support.
In addition to their economic concerns, board members chided Mr. Lam and Ms. Tan for their failure to attend three scheduled board meetings or to show significant support for the B.I.D., said Gregory Heller, the chair of the board’s economic-development committee. While the property owners rallied their numbers against the B.I.D., Ms. Tan was the only B.I.D. supporter to come before the board.
“If she’s the only person that can speak on behalf of this project, then this project is D.O.A.,” Mr. Heller told The Observer. “There is no way one man or one woman can move something like this.”
Board members and property owners also believe the C.C.C. tried to hoodwink them into approving the B.I.D. by giving them “willfully misleading information,” Mr. Heller said. He cited a list distributed by the council with signatures from supporters dated 1995. When the board investigated the list, they found that some of the supporters had died in the interim, while others had changed their minds about the B.I.D.. Mr. Lam told The Observer that the list was intended to show support for the C.C.C. and not a B.I.D., but Mr. Heller still dismissed the list as irrelevant and misleading because of its age.
“In the seven years since 1995, a lot has changed in Chinatown and this city,” Mr. Heller said. “I don’t know how anyone could say with confidence, if they signed their name to something in 1995, that they are still convinced of that position seven years later.”
While Mr. Lam denied that he had tried to deceive the board and the community, he said his plans had been misunderstood because he didn’t have enough manpower to research and write a cohesive presentation that could persuade the board and other B.I.D. skeptics.
“I am not a bit surprised [by the board’s vote],” Mr. Lam told The Observer . “We have not done our homework, because there’s only three of us. We are not full-time lobbyists; we are not well-informed and well-equipped.”
In contrast to Mr. Lam, leaders of CCBPO brought over 20 supporters and a stack of petitions with 600 signatures to the board meeting. Critics speculated that Mr. Lam and his partners were interested in forming a B.I.D. that would put them in control of millions of dollars and catapult them into positions of municipal power, as has happened with many B.I.D.’s. The Alliance for Downtown New York, for example, one of the city’s largest B.I.D.’s, brought in more than $14 million in fiscal year 2001, according to I.R.S. records. The alliance’s president-another former Koch official named Carl Weisbrod-has become a spokesman for lower Manhattan after taking a highly visible position on the board of the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation.
Critics also pointed to the size of the proposed B.I.D.-if created, the 40-square-block district would be the city’s largest-as a sign that Mr. Lam and his supporters were power-hungry.
However, Mr. Lam argued that an investment in the neighborhood by business and property owners was badly needed. The C.C.C.’s shoestring budget (funded primarily by Mr. Lam and a handful of other local businessmen) was not enough to pay for services like the street cleaning and security that the city was pulling back on to save money. The council’s net income in 2001 was only $100,932, according to I.R.S. records.
“We want to do more than just cleaning,” Mr. Lam said. “I don’t feel it’s fair for just 10 or 15 or 30 guys to put together money once a year to … hire security guards, to hire cleaners. We’ve been doing it for nine years-they don’t pay one cent, and they want us to do it forever.”
Mr. Lee argued that Mr. Lam and Ms. Tan should use their clout to lobby the city for services instead of paying for those services with a B.I.D.
Mr. Lam said that he doesn’t plan to bring his proposal before the Department of Business Services, which would sign off on the creation of a B.I.D., until he has the community’s backing. He did say that he will continue to campaign for the B.I.D., but added that if the businesses and property owners of Chinatown didn’t want to be part of the proposed B.I.D. zone, he was willing to let them go their own way.
“If they don’t want to help themselves, that’s fine, too,” Mr. Lam said. “I’m doing good business. But I was raised in this area. That’s why I get emotional.”
Dec. 18: Board 8, New York Blood Center, 310 East 67th Street, auditorium, 7 p.m., 758-4340.
Dec. 19: Board 9, 565 West 125th Street, 6:30 p.m., 864-6200; Board 2: Cronin Building, 170 West 12th Street, first-floor cafeteria, 6:30 p.m., 979-2272.