Plans to renovate Chinatown’s Kimlau Square reignite debate over neighborhood’s future

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By Dan Sears

The Adams administration’s plan to spend $55 million renovating a historic Chinatown plaza has reignited local debate about neighborhood priorities, use of public space and aesthetics.

At the center of the disagreements, local business and political leaders say, is a planned multimillion-dollar “Gateway Arch” – in line with those in Chinatowns across the world – eyed for historic Kimlau Square. But the arch is only part of the swirling debate.

The substantial infusion of government cash follows a state pledge a little over a year ago to set aside $20 million on several projects to “revitalize” the neighborhood.

“In under-resourced communities like ours, when a big pot of money like this becomes available, there’s so much competition for all these needs,” said Yin Kong, co-founder and director of the neighborhood advocacy group Think!Chinatown and a member of the local planning committee that suggested projects ripe for state funding. “So I think it was sometimes hard to talk about a cohesive vision.”

The discussions have brought to the fore a range of challenges that have long weighed on the Lower Manhattan community’s future, including the lingering economic toll from the pandemic, population losses, flooding from superstorm Sandy, the nearby 9/11 attacks, and long-neglected public spaces.

According to a recent study from the city’s Department of Small Business Service, 57,159 people live in Chinatown, and the Asian population declined by 10% from 2010 to 2020, as Asian communities grew elsewhere in the city, principally in Queens.

But Mayor Eric Adams’ funding announcement, in his State of the City address last week, made plain that Manhattan’s Chinatown remains prominent. He said the city would spend $55 million revitalizing the Kimlau Square area, “giving one of New York City’s most historic districts the entrance it deserves.”

An infusion of funds

City Hall spokesperson Charles Lutvak told Gothamist that amount includes $44 million from the city, and $11.5 million more earmarked by the state. Under the Downtown Revitalization Initiative, Gov. Kathy Hochul has already set aside $5 million to renovate Kimlau Square, $2.5 to design the arch, and $4 million to “beautify” a key gateway, along Park Row from the Brooklyn Bridge to the square, along with another $8 million more on other smaller projects in the neighborhood.

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The award was given as a “recognition of the specific and acute effects of the pandemic” on Chinatown merchants and Asian Americans living in the city, according to a governor’s office press release from December 2022.

Lutvak added that none of the city money will go toward the design or construction of an arch or beautifying Park Row. But Lutvak said all the projects – the arch included – are being discussed together in a public engagement process that kicked off last year.

In interviews, local residents said the $55 million in renovations is much needed for the historic square, which has long been plagued by a rat infestation and hard-to-navigate pedestrian and car paths. Local lawmakers have said they aim to reinvigorate the area, making it “the Columbus Circle of Lower Manhattan.”

Another debate has reignited over the ongoing closure of a central road off the plaza, Park Row, which once connected Chinatown’s merchants to the crowds of office workers in the Financial District and tourists disembarking the Brooklyn Bridge. The street has been closed to car traffic since 9/11 due to what NYPD has said are security concerns at its nearby headquarters.

Think!Chinatown Director Kong, also an urban designer and curator, said she felt the process to finalize the list of local projects worthy of state funding was inadequate, with participants soliciting pre-formed ideas rather than brainstorming together as a community.

Kong was particularly critical of the plan for the arch, which received $2.5 million in state grants, money that will help pay for the design process but not enough to also cover the much higher cost of construction.

Rather than a “cut-and-paste” of arches in other Chinese communities, Kong said, a local monument should be unique and representative of Manhattan’s Chinatown. She noted that the last attempt to create a Chinatown landmark, a multi-story steel tower designed by an Australian Chinese artist, ignited backlash from critics wary about the lack of local input on the design.

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The $1 million federal grant allocated for the public art project went unused.

Meaning behind an arch

Wellington Chen, the director of the local business improvement district, said the arch is a vital part of Chinese history dating back millenia, and an important symbol for Chinese residents, akin to a Native American “totem pole.”

“This is about the lack of your identity, for God’s sake,” said Chen, who has also worked as an architect. “For the ABC, the American-born Chinese, they don’t understand why every Asian community has an arch.”

Chen, also co-chair of the local downtown revitalization planning committee, added that he’s particularly wary of instances in the past where local improvement projects have died after community controversy.

“This is such a high-need district,” he said. “Any time anyone wants to give you some money, we should welcome it.”

Under the Kimlau Square renovation plans, the plaza space would expand, new lighting and signs would be installed, and pedestrian crossings would be shortened to lower the chance of vehicles crashing into pedestrians.

Several local lawmakers and community leaders, including Chen and Kong, said the current six-way design of the intersection at the plaza is a traffic hazard, often staffed by crossing guards, and littered with pigeon droppings.

They said the new expanded plaza would be a welcome addition to the neighborhood’s few parks and public spaces, which are well utilized and sometimes overcrowded, given the neighborhood’s many small-sized apartments.

Chen added that the disrepair is a disservice to the plaza’s namesake, Lt. Benjamin Kimlau, a Chinese-American bomber pilot who died during World War II and whose 18-foot memorial in the square honors Chinese-American soldiers who died in battle for the United States.

Honoring Chinese Americans

The landmark is the first in the city—and the only one, according to Chen, who also serves on the local landmarks commission, that recognizes the contributions of Chinese Americans.

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Fujianese immigrants in the neighborhood have also embraced a redesign of the square because it could integrate their community concentrated in the eastern part of Chinatown with the traditionally Cantonese, and more affluent historic core of the neighborhood, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine said.

“It’s a project that everyone could rally behind—because it does touch the newer and more established parts of the community,” Levine said.

Levine added that the redesign would help lure more foot-traffic from tourists crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, a desire echoed by Chen, who underscored the need of tourism to sustain the neighborhood.

Council Member Chris Marte said he’s less interested in making the square into a tourist destination than “a nice liveable space to improve quality-of-life” for existing residents.

Marte said he was particularly eager for the city to reopen the closed section of Park Row.

“I don’t think you can have one conversation without the other,” he said.

Lutvak, the City Hall spokesperson, did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday asking if the city would reopen Park Row as part of the plaza renovations. He said the city will announce more details about the plan soon.

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