A land squeeze in America's Chinatowns

In Boston, activists want to develop a site with affordable housing, but the city eyes offices and luxury condos.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

The empty lots, the tangle of highways above and below ground, and the power plant may not look like much. But everyone agrees it's prime real estate.

Residents of Chinatown next door see the 20 acres – called the "Chinatown Gateway" on zoning maps – as their best chance to develop much-needed affordable housing and alleviate a severe housing crunch.

But the city's redevelopment authority has dubbed the area "South Bay" and envisions a new downtown district with upscale apartments, hotels, and offices.

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This struggle in Boston is the latest in a land squeeze that is changing the nature of Chinatowns across the United States. As America's downtowns become hip again, urban real estate is becoming so valuable that ethnic enclaves find it increasingly difficult to survive as the first stop for new immigrants, usually with few skills and no English.

Once a fixture in most major US cities, many Chinatowns have ceased to exist as magnets for new arrivals. San Diego's Chinatown is now a historic district. A coalition in Phoenix is trying to save the last remaining Chinatown structure from becoming a luxury apartment building. Four of the enclaves in the 10 largest cities – in Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia – are now commercial areas. Dallas, which never had a historic Chinatown, designated a retail center as "Chinatown" in the 1980s. Other Chinatowns in Seattle, Detroit, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., are today primarily tourist spots.

"Because it's very valuable downtown real estate, [developers] would love to dismantle the housing and just build hotels and office buildings," says Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

New York's Chinatown is one of the last historic enclaves to remain a thriving residential and commercial area, says Peter Kwong, coauthor of "Chinese America: The Untold Story of America's Oldest New Community." But it's also feeling squeezed.

Here in Boston, talks on developing the site could resume this fall. In theory, the city and Chinatown agree they want to create a mixed-income neighborhood with a park. But they'll have to do battle over the proportion of affordable versus market-rate housing.

Chinatown activists want to see plenty of the former, along with businesses that create jobs not just for corporate executives but also for working-class immigrants. Already, gentrification has meant increased rents in the neighborhood. More low-income residents are moving into increasingly cramped apartments. Small businesses have buddied up on space.

To fight the squeeze, Chinatown-based groups have become more organized and vocal. "It is probably the single most important development event that will have the biggest impact on Chinatown's future," says Lydia Lowe, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association.

The city wants the new district to accommodate its low-income neighbors but also attract high-end businesses and residents who generate revenue.

Height is another sticking point. For Chinatown, it means more traffic and less sunlight. Developers like tall buildings because they can charge more for a view from the 35th floor and have more space for subsidized units.

"We're looking for a truly mixed-use district," says Sue Kim, project manager for the Boston Redevelopment Authority's South Bay Planning Study.

The primary owner of the land, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, is in debt for its huge Big Dig project and would like to turn a profit.

Urban development will ultimately win out, and as part of that trend, Chinatown will become a tourist destination, predicts Michael Liu, a research associate at the Institute for Asian-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

"The question is, who will this new Chinatown benefit?" asks Mr. Kwong, the author. "Making Chinatown a tourist destination ... is not something to be handled by the location population."

One sign of the times is a new Japanese-style restaurant on the northern border of Chinatown. The wood décor is fresh, the music Western, the chopsticks cute, and waitresses outfitted in kimono-like tops with black slacks and a polka-dot bandana over their hair.

The style appeals to the non-Chinese clientele that increasingly surrounds the neighborhood, says Judy Chow, a manager whose company owns the place.

"Chinatown is the best place to live when you first come," says Ms. Chow, who came here as a new immigrant in 1984. But business is business. "There are a lot of offices around here," she says. "We want to tap into that market."

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