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Plan to demolish and rebuild historic Chinatown building divides community

Activists, preservationists, and residents are split on the city’s decision to tear down rather than restore the century-old property on 70 Mulberry Street, which was damaged in a fire in January.
Image: A full demolition of the community center on 70 Mulberry Street has already begun, angering scores of residents who consider it a cultural and spiritual hub in Manhattan's Chinatown.
A full demolition of the community center on 70 Mulberry Street has already begun, angering scores of residents who consider it a cultural and spiritual hub in Manhattan's Chinatown.Richard Moses / Lower East Side Preservation Initiative

Residents and activists in Manhattan’s Chinatown are torn over the city’s move to demolish a beloved community center that many consider a cultural and spiritual hub of the neighborhood.

The five-story brick building on 70 Mulberry Street was severely damaged by afive-alarm fire on Jan. 23. The blaze destroyed the top three floors and displaced five decades-old community organizations, including the Museum of Chinese in America, the United East Athletics Association, the H.T. Chen & Dancers company, and the Chinese-American Planning Council’s senior center.

The day after the fire, Mayor Bill de Blasio had vowed to work with community members to restore the original architecture. But in the four months since, some residents say they’ve had next to no input in the ongoing construction talks. They say the city didn’t provideupdateson the planning process until May 14, when it announced at a Committee Board 3 meeting that the entire building would be torn down and replaced.

Meanwhile, the five tenants of 70 Mulberry say that city officials helped them secure temporary office space and saved valuable artifacts and equipment during the blaze. The tenants released a joint statement on May 26 urging that a full demolition “continue without delay” so that they can return home and continue providing essential services to the community. At the same time, they said, the new building should preserve “elements of the lobby, façade, historic signage, and cast-iron columns" to “memorialize the history of 70 Mulberry.”

Nancy Yao Maasbach, president of the Museum of Chinese in America, is one of the tenants.

“I have 95 percent of my archives restored,” she told NBC Asian America. “That’s preserving history we have collected for 40 years. So I’ll always be indebted to the city. We’re all wounded in the community, and some of us may want to point the finger at each other. But we need to rise above that. The days of being divisive need to end."

Joseph Wagner, the chief engineer at the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, said during the May 14 meeting that the building’s interior infrastructure is too compromised to be restored, with damage from fire, water and mold.

“There really isn’t anything I can see that you can save to reuse again,” Wagner said at the meeting, adding that the cost of a gut-and-restore operation exceeds that of a full demolition.

The demolition process is already underway and expected to be completed by October, he said, but the city remains committed to reinstating the five tenant organizations in the new property.

Many who attended the meeting were unconvinced by the department’s findings.

“There’s never been an independent analysis of the building and the preservation opportunity,” said Kerri Culhane, an architectural historian who has extensively studied Manhattan’s Chinatown.

Wagner, who isn’t trained in preservation engineering, didn’t appear to be familiar with or open to the possibilities of restoring historic architecture, Culhane added. To her, 70 Mulberry’s unique, intricate facade design—marked by arched doorways and windows that stack atop one another like a staircase—alone makes a strong case for preservation.

“I’ve seen some pretty messed up buildings that are salvageable,” Culhane said. “Certainly a lot of work needs to be done to bring it to code, but it’s not impossible.”

June Jee, a board member of United East Athletics Association, noted that tenants were consulted about the demolition process but not regarding the building design. “The decision was made without our feedback,” she said. “We were mostly hearing things off the street.”

Karlin Chan, an activist and Community Board 3 member, said the department failed to provide a cost analysis comparing restoration and demolition, nor a clear timeline on when the reconstruction process would begin.

“For the city to rush into it without any development plans for the replacement building raises red flags,” he said, adding that the base needs to be preserved at all cost.

This isn’t the first time that the Chinatown community has pushed back against the current administration’s tactic of strong-arming development projects. In February, two groups sued the city to halt the construction of a jail where some Rikers inmates would eventually be transferred.

The fight to preserve a storied institution, though, takes on another level of urgency. And to scores of Chinatown lifers, the original 70 Mulberry is a property of incalculable significance.

The more than a century old structure is the only city-owned property in Chinatown occupied entirely by nonprofits.NYC Board of Education Collection / NYC Municipal Archives

It was built in 1893 to house Public School 23, the first school designed by renowned architect Charles B. J. Snyder. Over the next 80 years, generations of working-class Italian and Chinese children ran through its corridors, receiving an education they might not have gotten anywhere else. In 1975, the space was repurposed as an all-age community center, with today’s five organizations providing a host of free youth and senior programs, as well as tens of thousands of artifacts tracing back to the early days of Chinese immigration to the US.

Until the fire, 70 Mulberry was the only city-owned property in Chinatown occupied entirely by nonprofits.

Founded in 1891 as a public school, the building served generations of Italian and Chinese children, many of whom still live in the neighborhood today. Here, a Kindergarten art class met in June, 1935.NYC Board of Education Collection / NYC Municipal Archives

“Within this one location you have a range of services for a lot of people,” said June Jee, a board member of the United East Athletics Association, which had organized sports and recreation programs out of the building for four decades. “When you break that apart, we lose the anchor that people simply gravitate to.”

Not everyone believes painstaking restoration is the best approach.

“The sentimental value is not in the building but in the memories that we have,” said Richard Young, an ophthalmologist who graduated from PS 23 in 1961.

Young said he never found the exterior to be visually pleasing, and thought much of the interior infrastructure has been “obsolete” since his school days.

“I personally prefer a new, taller building that’ll ideally pass code,” he said, adding that the space should still be nonprofit-oriented. “And let’s move forward as quickly as possible so the community can use it.”

But other residents fear that knocking down the structure will give the city an opening to sell the land to a private developer. Should that happen, the tenant organizations might not be able to pay rent at the same stabilized rate, and could be forced out of the neighborhood. (The Chinese Chamber of Commerce has already sent the city council a proposal to build a partially affordable 20-story apartment complex.)

And given that the coronavirus pandemic has plunged the country into its worst financial crisis in decades, erecting hundreds of new housing units sounds like a reckless gamble, said Richard Moses, the president of the nonprofit Lower East Side Preservation Initiative.

“It makes no sense in this economic climate,” he said. “You can have no real takers for this vacant lot for the next five to 10 years.”

CLARIFICATION (June 1, 2020, 3:30 p.m. ET): This article has been updated to reflect that June Jee's comments were referring to the design of the building, not to the demolition of the building.

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