May 24, 2024

Square Feet: Chinatown Mobilizes to Enhance Its Outside Appeal

One of them, Siowai Sang, the owner of Golden Jade Jewelry, said his sales were down 70 percent from pre-9/11 levels. His financial district clientele all but disappeared after the attacks, and the slow economy has not been good for nonessential purchases like jewelry, Mr. Sang said. “When markets go down, the jewelry business is the first to hurt and the last to recover,” he said.

Now an organized effort is being made improve Chinatown’s prospects. Retailers like Mr. Sang, who owns one of the 262 jewelry shops in and around Canal Street, as well as those who operate clothing stores, souvenir shops and restaurants, will be the focus of a new business improvement district financed by building owners. The organization will supply resources for public safety officers, new signage and marketing in an effort to make the teeming neighborhood more appealing to visitors. The district is expected to receive final approvals from the city this summer.

Mr. Sang serves on the board of the fledgling business district, which he said was long overdue. “We need somebody to manage garbage pickup, get rid of the smell and do promotion and advertising,” he said.

Chinatown has had relatively little new construction, even as it has expanded its boundaries north and east into Little Italy and the Lower East Side. Some hotels have been built near the fringes, but there is little modern office space and little on the drawing boards. Demand exists, particularly for doctors’ and dentists’ offices. Yet the real estate boom that buoyed much of the city earlier in the decade was felt less in Chinatown.

Ownership is the crux of the problem. Wellington Chen, the executive director of the coming business district, now called the Chinatown Partnership, said buildings of all descriptions, including side-street tenements, are owned by “associations” of Chinese business people as well as families, many of whom have owned all or part of a building for generations. Getting all parties to agree to a sale would be nearly impossible, he said, even if all the owners could be located. Assembling multiple contiguous parcels for new construction, like three or more tenement buildings, would be extremely difficult.

“Chinatown is the Wild, Wild West when it comes to finding out who the building owners are,” said Yvonne Chang, a broker with the Kaufman Organization who is marketing leases at a two-story building at 257 Canal Street.

Landmark status on some buildings is another obstacle to development, as is the significant number of rent-controlled and rent-stabilized housing units in the area. Mr. Chen said about 4,200 of the 5,000 apartments in the neighborhood are regulated. Ousting tenants in any of the regulated buildings is out of the question, even though some building owners would like to see them go so they could raise the rent.

Chinese owners also prefer to do business within the Chinese community, another factor that gets in the way of development. “They won’t go far past who they know, and they know everybody,” Ms. Chang said. “They market among themselves.”

The renovated 139 Centre Street, a nine-story commercial condo developed by Youngwoo Associates, whose principal, Young S. Woo, is Korean, is one example. On the market for two years, 120 of 144 units have been sold, all but one to professionals of Asian or Chinese origin. The exception is an American obstetrician, said Charlotte Cheung, the marketing sales director for the building. Many of the buyers, who are now paying about $850 a unit per square foot, down from a peak of $1,150 two years ago, have medical offices that cater to an Asian patient population that is willing to travel long distances to Chinatown to receive health care from professionals of their ethnic group.

Making it a condominium automatically geared it to Asians. “We like to own instead of rent,” Ms. Cheung said. “Many will stay 20 years or more and put a lot of money into capital improvements.”

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