Boston's Chinatown sees the luxury high-rises come in, and ponders its future

Updated: 2015-06-01 11:03

By William Hennelly(China Daily USA)

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 Boston's Chinatown sees the luxury high-rises come in, and ponders its future

The entrance to Boston's Chinatown in 2013. Paul Marotta / Getty Images

"Chinatown is at a tipping point," says Karen Chen, speaking of Boston's long-established Chinese neighborhood.

"I think that something needs to happen quickly," to make the neighborhood more affordable for longtime residents, said Chen, co-director of the Chinatown Progressive Association, a community action group.

New housing - often high-rise luxury apartments and condos - in the past decade has raised the skyline and changed the demographics of Chinatown.

Boston's Chinatown sees the luxury high-rises come in, and ponders its future

"Everything that is happening here (in Chinatown), we are suffering all the consequences of it," Chen told China Daily, "whether it's the shadow (tall buildings blocking sunlight), wind tunnel, the impact of rent rising."

Chen, who immigrated to the US at age 10 from Taishan, Guangdong province, said other city neighborhoods are seeing gentrification, too.

"It's happening in East Boston, Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan," she said.

Boston, with its world-class universities, healthcare and storied history, is a desirable place to live. The city is taking on some of the real estate traits of "world cities" like New York and London. Boston's population is expected to increase 15 percent to more than 700,000 in the next two decades, edging back toward its post-World War II peak of 800,000 in the 1950 US Census.

In response to the rapid changes, the city recently unveiled its first city plan in 50 years: Imagine Boston 2030.

"With input from all those who call our city home, Imagine Boston 2030 will define a vision for Boston on its 400th birthday and beyond, and a roadmap to realize that vision," Mayor Martin Walsh said at historic Faneuil Hall on May 6. "We're in the midst of a remarkable building boom that is set to reshape the skyline of our city in a way that hasn't been seen since the Industrial Age. And our population is growing, reversing the decades of population loss in the late 20th century."

Walsh, a Democrat, is the son of Irish immigrants, one of the immigrant groups that originally settled in the area that is now Chinatown.

Imagine Boston 2030 says that the city's redevelopment will be responsive to neighborhood concerns.

The CPA recently unveiled a sarcastic response to the plan, calling it Imagine Chinatown 2030?

"We're asking will Chinatown still be here in 2030," Mark Liu, director of programs and operations at CPA told the Bay State Banner. "We need protective zoning for the neighborhood so it can maintain being the gateway for working-class immigrants."

The first listed goal on the Imagine Boston 2030 eight-point plan is "building housing that keeps Boston accessible to all".

"Housing prices are a concern all over Boston, and housing will be a major topic of Imagine Boston, building on the work already done as part of the city's housing report," Gerald Autler, a senior project manager and planner at the Boston Redevelopment Agency, wrote to China Daily.

In that 2014 housing report by the mayor's office, the city identified issues it calls critical to maintaining strong neighborhoods: "mitigating gentrification, foreclosure prevention and intervention, providing a diversity of housing choices, and strengthening the connection between homes and health".

The city plans to increase its overall housing stock by 53,000 units by 2030. Boston currently has 19 percent of its housing units devoted to affordable housing, the highest percentage of any major US city.

"Boston's Chinatown is largely developed anyway, and the community has learned to articulate concerns in the face of development," Ling-Mei Wong, the editor of Sampan, a bilingual Chinese-English language newspaper, wrote to China Daily. "It is a gentrifying neighborhood, but nonprofits, public housing and community organizers are working to keep Chinatown affordable and dynamic."

In the city's Central planning district, where Chinatown is located, the number of housing units occupied by residents with incomes over $100,000 has risen almost 30 percent between 2000 and 2012.

The rent on a one-bedroom penthouse at The Kensington, a glittering apartment tower that opened in 2013, starts at $4,640 a month.

The luxury high-rise tower Radian, on Kingston Street, opened in 2014 with 240 residential units, with rents ranging from $3,000 to $4,000 a month. The city said 48 affordable housing units, the Oxford Ping On Affordable Housing Project, make up the "off-site affordable component for the 120 Kingston project" and are being built on Oxford Street.

Also under construction is Parcel 24, a 345-unit mixed-income residential development. The Hong Lok House, under construction on Essex Street, will have 75 senior assisted-living residences.

The Asian Community Development Corp, a non-profit organization, and the New Boston Fund Inc, a private equity real estate concern, held a fair housing lottery on May 15 for 95 affordable rental units at 66 Hudson, part of the One Greenway development at Chinatown's edge. Market-priced one bedrooms at One Greenway start at $2,860 a month.

"The overwhelming number of applicants for the One Greenway apartments shows that many families want to call Chinatown home and depend on its mature network of supportive services, and yet few are able to afford to live in our neighborhood," Janelle Chan, executive director of Asian Community Development Corp, told Sampan. She said One Greenway "is a great model for the progress that can be made when we work together, even in the face of declining federal funding".

More than 4,000 applications were submitted for the 95 units. The adjacent Tower at One Greenway, which has 217 market-rate apartments, will get 51 affordable units when South Building construction starts later this year.

"Our hope is that in 2030, there will be a Chinatown in the city of Boston, and a Chinatown that is accessible to working people," the CPA's Chen said.

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