The Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation announced last weekend it was exploring creating a business improvement district that would collect a tax from property owners to fund services like street cleaning and marketing for the area.
It would be a way for the neighborhood to control its own destiny at a time when Chinatowns are “struggling to keep their identities,” Lamei Zhang, the corporation’s projects manager, said at the meeting as her colleague Yue Wu translated.
But as the group and some other Chinatown community members see it, something needs to be killed before Chinatown can have its own business district: a proposal for a Callowhill business district, which would cover what some think of as “Chinatown North," north of the Vine Street Expressway.
Maria Yuen, a Chinatown North resident who spoke with the passion — and anger — of an experienced community activist, said she supported the development corporation’s district but “unless that [Callowhill] BID is defeated, this conversation is irrelevant.”
Yuen told the crowd of roughly 70 at Good Good Comedy Theatre in Chinatown on Saturday afternoon that she had worked to snuff a similar Callowhill proposal about eight years before.
“It’s inevitable that outside people will come into our neighborhood and demand our money and spend it the way they want to spend it," she said. "Let’s kill the BID and move forward with the Chinatown BID.”
The two business districts, to be clear, could coexist, but only if Chinatown’s proposed business district were cut in half.
It’s not just about boundaries, though, or a debate about taxing property owners for more services. It’s a struggle over a neighborhood with a traumatic history, a question of who owns Chinatown North, or Callowhill, and the complications that come with the perceptions of so-called New Philadelphia and Old Philadelphia.
In 2011, a group of Chinatown North community members, led in part by Maria Yuen and her husband, John Yuen, organized neighbors against a proposal for a neighborhood improvement district in Callowhill, saying it did not represent their interests. It was thought to be the first time a group of neighbors defeated such a proposal in Philadelphia, according to a Daily News article from 2012.
The group behind the Callowhill proposal, spearheaded by current Callowhill Neighborhood Association president Sarah McEneaney, hoped the improvement district would clean up the trash in the area, add lighting to the many dark corridors under abandoned railroad trestles, and help support the creation of a Rail Park. Opponents saw that as code for gentrification; to them, the mostly white, newer entrants to the neighborhood didn’t seem to think about who might be pushed out as a result of these changes. For example, John Chin, executive director of Chinatown’s development corporation, pointed out the lack of emphasis on developing affordable housing.
There are longer-running dynamics at play, too: The construction of the Vine Street Expressway in the late ’60s — fiercely opposed by the neighborhood’s groups — split Chinatown in two. The Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation rose out of this fight, and Kathryn Wilson, a Georgia State University history professor who wrote the 2015 Ethnic Renewal in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, said the neighborhood has tried to bridge the divide created by the highway, like with its Eastern Tower mixed-use building project, ever since.
It was with that baggage as the backdrop that the proponents of a Callowhill business district, this time led by developer Craig Grossman’s company Arts + Crafts Holdings, embarked on a second try.
Kelly Edwards, 31, an urban planner who works in community relations for Arts + Crafts Holdings and is spearheading the Callowhill district, said her experience talking about the proposal to community members over the last two years has been positive: People who live and work there are excited the idea was being revitalized, she said.
Wynne Kwan, a member of the district’s steering committee who moved to the neighborhood last fall from Washington, D.C., believes the district would make Callowhill cleaner, safer, and more inviting.
Commercial property owners would pay a .12 percent tax on their property assessment, while residential owners would pay a .06 percent tax. Renters would not be charged, though landlords could pass the charge onto them.
However, Edwards said, the folks at the Chinatown Development Corporation seem intent on not working with the Callowhill people. They aren’t interested in joining the board and are telling others the proposal is being spearheaded by “outside developers.” Grossman has lived in Philadelphia for 20 years, and Aaron Cohen, Grossman’s partner at Arts + Crafts, is a lifelong Philadelphian, she said.
Edwards, who lives in Bella Vista, said Arts + Crafts was investing in the neighborhood.
“We’re not building million-dollar condos, we’re not looking to raise anyone’s rents, we hardly do any residential work,” she said.
(Some Arts + Crafts tenants at 1217 Spring Garden St. said last year their rents had gone up by 50 percent with minimal renovations done to justify the new cost. Edwards said that building, which is not in the improvement district boundary, needed many improvements to get it up to code.)
The Chinatown Development Corporation, as well as another nonprofit serving Chinatown called Asian Americans United, said they were most concerned about how the Callowhill district engaged with the Chinatown community.
The Callowhill group did not have an interpreter at their two public meetings. They sent out a postcard with a link to a neighborhood survey, and while the postcard was translated into Chinese, the survey was not. Officials from the Chinatown Development Corporation said it was not interested in joining the Callowhill district board because it saw the offer as solely for the sake of appearances, and didn’t like that Chinatown representatives would make up only a minority of the nine-member board.
Kim Ling, who owns condos at Buttonwood and Ridge, said he never received any mailings about the district, although his tenants did. Edwards said they used property records supplied by the city.
Any lack of transparency was troubling to property owners because of the way that business improvement district voting works: It must be approved by 66 percent of property owners within 45 days of its official public meeting, but not voting at all counts as a “yes.”
Alix Webb, executive director of Asian Americans United, which rents a space in Chinatown North, said of the Callowhill communication practices: “It’s just been disrespectful.”
Edwards noted that the business district’s website is now translated into Chinese and that the public meeting that starts the voting period, set for March 27 at Cafe Lift from 6 to 8 p.m., will have an interpreter. The survey not being translated was an “oversight,” she said. Community members, she added, did not ask for translators ahead of the two previous public meetings about the district.
Ultimately, the Chinatown Development Corporation envisions a Chinatown that includes the neighborhood north of Vine.
McEneaney, of the Callowhill Neighborhood Association, acknowledged there are many identities of the neighborhood where she lives, but maybe there’s no going back.