Saving Chinatown 

As ethnic enclaves around the country grapple with displacement and gentrification, activists and business leaders offer competing visions for the future of Oakland Chinatown.

Page 5 of 7

"There's a serious threat of displacement," said Ener Chiu, who moderated the discussion along with APEN lead community organizer Alvina Wong, in his opening remarks.

Chiu — a commercial planning manager with the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC), which develops and manages affordable housing projects, and serves as office landlord to many Oakland-based nonprofits — told me that Chinatown leaders had been meeting to talk about development issues since 2009, but that the recent gathering was by far the most comprehensive in terms of stakeholders represented in one room: public health advocates, providers of legal services for low-income Asians and Pacific Islanders, leaders of 100-plus-year-old churches in Chinatown, and more. As a result, the meeting had a circle-the-wagons, all-hands-on-deck feeling. Nearly everyone in the room seemed to agree that Chinatown was facing a looming crisis.

click to enlarge Sonny Le doesn't believe the chamber of commerce benefits the "downstairs" Chinatown. - BERT JOHNSON
  • Bert Johnson
  • Sonny Le doesn't believe the chamber of commerce benefits the "downstairs" Chinatown.

There was one notable absence: No one from the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce had been invited. It wasn't an oversight. The chamber was originally part of a coalition of Chinatown community leaders that met a few years ago to come up with a set of recommendations for the City of Oakland when it was putting together the Lake Merritt BART Station Area Plan — a 25-year blueprint for the future development of the roughly half-mile radius of land around the BART station, which includes Chinatown. But due to a range of disagreements, the chamber eventually left the coalition. At the heart of the rift were fundamentally different philosophies with regard to affordable housing. While the chamber pushed for as much market-rate development as possible, progressive nonprofits such as APEN and EBALDC advocated for tenant protections and affordable housing to make sure that low-income immigrants would still be able to live in the neighborhood. Activists also feared that allowing tall buildings would add even more pressure to the area's already soaring rental market.

"If you allow twenty-story buildings, or fifty-story buildings, to go up, it increases property values," argued Timmy Lu, APEN's State Organizing Director, in a phone interview. "That's where things get hot, even if you're all operating from a place of, 'We want to do what's best for the community.'"

The Chinatown coalition's proposal would have allowed developers to build high-rises — but only if they agreed to implement certain community benefits, including contributing funds that would go toward the construction of affordable housing. All told, the coalition wanted 30 percent of the units in any new development to be set aside as affordable housing.

The October 5 meeting at the APEN office was largely an effort by community leaders to regroup in the aftermath of the Lake Merritt BART Station Area Plan, the final version of which was approved by the city in 2014. Ultimately, Chiu and others said the plan turned out to be a resounding defeat for their efforts: Although the city council enacted height restrictions of a relatively modest 85 feet at the core of Chinatown, it zoned lots of land all along the neighborhood's perimeter to allow for 275-foot-tall buildings. And while the plan adopted by the council mentions many of the community benefits that groups like APEN and EBALDC had pushed for, it doesn't structure the zoning regulations in a way that provide any mechanism to ensure that they'll happen. The council, for example, did not require high-rise developers to pay for affordable housing.

In an interview, Chiu said it's not that EBALDC doesn't think market-rate housing ought to be built in Chinatown, particularly larger market-rate units that can help attract middle-class families back to the neighborhood. There shouldn't be this binary choice between unrestricted development and no development at all, he said. Rather, it's a matter of making sure the development is scaled in such a way that it doesn't price out poor people. "If prices force our constituencies out, then you end up with Washington, DC: hollowed out — the names of McDonald's and Starbucks in Chinese, and pagoda orientalism, but no working-class Chinese people living there anymore," Chiu said.

Chiu also believes the chamber underestimates the extent to which low-income seniors are actually the backbone of Chinatown's traditional businesses. While these elders' annual income may only be $20,000, they spend money at the shops and restaurants every day, and deposit their savings in the neighborhood's many banks. As for the San Francisco tech workers who live in those nice condos in Oakland Chinatown — the ones that restaurateurs such as Weng are so eager to attract? Chiu said most of the ones he knows shop for groceries at Whole Foods or Trader Joe's.

As APEN's Alvina Wong put it, "I'm not saying that Chinatown should always be poor, but it's about staying true to the character of the neighborhood and making sure it's still a place that new immigrants and longtime immigrants can survive and thrive in."

For his part, Carl Chan is adamant that he does care about the low-wage worker — the person that he, too, describes as the "backbone" of Oakland Chinatown. According to Chan, anyone who has invested time and energy in Chinatown over the years has an obligation to protect that worker. Despite the chamber's displeasure with the minimum wage increase, Chan said he has been encouraging business owners to comply with the law so that workers receive every penny to which they are entitled, and he has told employers not to try any "funny business," such as manipulating their workers' on-the-book hours.


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