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June 24, 2015

America's Chinatowns resisting luxury developments

Battle over Museum Square complex mirrors experience in cities across nation

Real Estate Development
Chinatown Philadelphia Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

The Chinese Friendship Gate at 10th and Arch marks the entrance to Chinatown.

A battle over the preservation of District of Columbia's shrinking Chinatown stands as a stark example of the reality many communities are facing as developers threaten to displace Section 8 tenants.

At a recent rally in District of Columbia, more than 100 ethnic Chinese gathered to hear Michael Kane, executive director of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants, address a proposed plan by the Virginia-based Bush Companies to knock down a rent-subsidized Museum Square complex.

“What the Bush Companies is doing amounts to ethnic cleansing: removing communities of color from the city to make room for a high-rise,” Kane said to staggered applause, aided by a translator.

According to ThinkProgress, the proposed high-end apartments, condos, and retail construction would force hundreds of people to relocate, most of them senior African-Americans and ethnic Chinese.

The Bush Companies' plan is now in contention with two lawsuits that hinge on the District's Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), which requires that landlords give tenants a chance to buy their home before selling or redeveloping it. The Bush Companies is suing the District over modifications made to TOPA, while the tenants are suing The Bush Companies over the $250 million asking price they say is too high to be a "bona fide" TOPA offer.

Though the developers say the plan wouldn't qualify as displacement because the tenants receive vouchers, evicting the 300 households in the building might actually push the tenants out of District of Columbia altogether.

Historically, the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation set an example of how to successfully stave off rapid redevelopment that will leave tenants with few options. In 1966, town meetings were held to oppose an initial plan for the Vine Street Expressway that would have demolished much of Chinatown, including sites significant to the residents' heritage. Those meetings led to the creation of the PCDC, which led Philadelphia's Save Chinatown movement in later battles such as a proposed Phillies stadium and in efforts to secure affordable housing.

The fight in the District of Columbia represents another step in a process that has seen D.C.'s Chinatown become a "China corner," but is also an example of how low-income immigrant neighborhoods are especially susceptible to redevelopment efforts.

Read more at ThinkProgress.