Surrounded by some of the most desirable neighborhoods in the world, Chinatown has somehow managed to withstand the dynamic whims of the New York City real estate market. One can’t help but wonder walking past the low-rise tenement buildings studded along Mott Street how Chinatown is still “Chinatown”. Where are the glistening apartment towers, trendy eateries, and overpriced yet alluring retail flagships that have become so commonplace almost everywhere else in Manhattan? Here are a few reasons why developers haven’t been able to crack the Chinatown enigma.
1) Complicated Ownership Structures – The 1960s and 1970s paved the foundation for the Chinatown of today. During that time, waves of new immigrant families formed coalitions known as “family associations” and began to purchase roughly 60 buildings in Chinatown’s core along Pell, Mott, and Bayard Streets. With numerous parties holding a share in one building, it can be almost impossible to sell, and for many developers going through the logistical headache of tracking down all the owners and convincing them to sell is not worth the effort.
2) Strong Community Bonds – Chinatown has an almost separate government infrastructure from the rest of the city. With a majority of residents dependent on numerous community groups for financial assistance, disputes between individuals or businesses are often settled outside of court and within organizations such as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA). This system enables the outcomes of conflicts to preserve the Chinatown community and prevents outsiders from having their way.
3) Historical Landmark – Many areas of Chinatown are historic landmarks further complicating the development process.
While real estate investors have slowly begun new projects along the peripheries of Chinatown including Extell’s luxury condo tower development at 250 South Street in the Lower East Side, the core of Chinatown continues to have a fighting chance against change. And perhaps that’s a good thing. The area continues to be a haven for new immigrants every year and is a defining cultural destination in Manhattan. So the next time you think about putting up a condo tower next to your favorite noodle house in Chinatown, think again.