The Last Frontier is on the cusp of opening up
Whenever anyone asks me where I would purchase in New York, my immediate answer is Chinatown. If we’re speaking straight location, not prioritizing maximum investment potential, then yes, please stick me in a killer loft in Noho or Soho. If we’re talking about an *affordable* rental, toss me a sling shot away from the Wayland on Avenue C and 9th. But if we’re gauging both appreciation and location for a sale, the Chinatown/Two Bridges/Lower-Lower East Side market is, in my mind, the final Manhattan frontier that is cracking open with enormous potential.
About a year ago, the New York Times released one of my favorite articles pertaining to the area, “How has Chinatown Stayed Chinatown?”, that takes the reader into the heart of the insular and untapped neighborhood. To the infrequent outsider of the neighborhood, life south of Canal seems like smelly fish market business as usual. But to those privy to life behind the colorful building facades, the very fabric of Chinatown is on the cusp of major change and the seemingly uncrackable community is starting to fracture under the ubiquitous pressure.
The community fragility can be blamed on it’s changing core: many immigrants’ children leave for college and never return, other families relocate to outer boroughs (notably Sunset Park and Flushing), leaving the area dominated by elderly dwellers of rent-regulated apartments. While Chinatown is flanked by three of the most expensive neighborhoods in Manhattan (Soho, Tribeca and FiDi), what has kept the neighborhood as we know it intact are the associations that gobbled up a large percent of the land many years ago and have since then played puppeteer to all real estate transactions.
Chinatown is a remarkably self sustaining and tight-knit city, even though it rests on arguably the most valuable land in the city. The neighborhood is run by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), a sort of government that collects dues and oversees all business transactions, and it represents the interests of five dozen cultural organizations and family associations. The CCBA is so strong that most legal disputes don’t go before the court system; they go to the council of the CCBA. The Association effectively owns all the real estate in Chinatown, which makes it almost impossible for outsiders to break into the market. However with the encroaching development of high-rise building pressuring families to relocate and, in turn, transition rent-subsidized apartments to market rate, there is only so much muscle these groups can flex before city politics overpower them.
With the wave of homogenization on the very cusp of Chinatown, just waiting to leak through a crack in the foundation, residents are weighing their options. Over the past eight years, rezoning plans have been proposed to slow down the potential wide spread transition into the open market, protect small businesses and limit building height. They’ve been met with a variety of reaction from residents, developers, city officials and association members. The Low-Down recently covered the rezoning discussion that is starting to be propelled into motion with the selection of members for the steering committee, a highly controversial process sure to create tension between neighborhood constituencies. The planning process should begin within the next year and while the outcome is up in the air, many predict that piecemeal rezoning will push unwanted development to sections of the neighborhood left unprotected. If the waterfront is one of those unprotected stretches, it is hypothesized that this may be the beginning of the end for the neighborhood.
While it is impossible to accurately predict the future of Chinatown, there is no denying that this land is the most sought after in the eyes of investors and developers alike. No matter what happens, Chinatown will always have the essence of the past, as seen in other neighborhoods that have been recently homogenized, like Little Italy and the East Village. However, if I were to put my money where my mouth is and call for a surefire area to invest that isn’t the Financial District, I would urge one to strongly consider getting their foot in the door of Chinatown early because in the next 20 years, the community south of Canal may be made up of a very different fabric.