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Community and History

Growth in Chinatown Exposes a Deep Rift
Aug 13, 2007, 11:29

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By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 13, 2007; B01

There is a dividing line in Chinatown -- a narrow, inconspicuous alley that twists its way between Massachusetts Avenue NW and I Street.

The District's recent decision to close it to make way for an office building complex estimated to cost $206 million has exposed a festering animosity between two influential Asian civic groups and launched a battle over the future of Chinatown.

In a community that rarely airs its disagreements publicly, the clash escalated until D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) intervened.

"This alley closing and what came with it was a symptom of a deep-rooted and long-standing conflict," said Gray, who has presided over four mediation sessions with the two groups.

On one side is the 25-year-old Chinatown Steering Committee, led by Chinatown's unofficial mayor, 82-year-old Duane Wang, and powerful restaurateur Tony Cheng. On the other is the month-old Chinatown Revitalization Council, led by 54-year-old computer consultant Alexander Y. Chi.

Both sides want Chinatown to blossom. But the upstart revitalization council says that under the steering committee's watch, Chinatown has dwindled to "Chinablock" -- H Street between Sixth and Seventh streets. And there's not much Chinese about that anymore, the critics say, other than the ornate phoenix and dragon archway on H Street and Cheng's Mongolian barbecue restaurant.

Chi said the lack of vision has stifled the growth of the area as a destination point with uniquely Chinese attractions like other Chinatowns across the country. New office buildings, trendy restaurants and chain stores have overshadowed the family-owned Chinese shops, he said.

One of the block's most famous restaurants, Golden Palace, was torn down to make way for Gallery Place. The block's newest eatery is Vapiano. It will serve pizza.

Cheng, 58, said his critics are just upset that government officials have long viewed him and Wang as Chinatown's leaders. "A lot of people are jealous because of all we have, because of all we do," he said, sitting in his restaurant's dining room, across from a circular tank filled with crabs.

And Chi is breaking one of the most important tenets of Chinese culture, Cheng said. "He doesn't respect older people. Duane Wang is 82 years old," he said. "You may have smarts, but you are not smarter than him."

Wang said his group has made Chinatown safer and made it look more Chinese by pushing through lampposts, sidewalk bricks emblazoned with the Chinese zodiac and a requirement for Chinese lettering on the signs of all stores. Wang and Cheng say they need more support from the city to force developers to go beyond those small architectural touches.

Gray worries that without a major push to unite the civic groups, efforts to preserve Chinatown's heritage could stall for years.

But his role as mediator has been difficult. During meetings, the groups have planted themselves on opposite sides of his office. Some people had not spoken to each other in two years. And when they do speak, their words are harsh.

Chi said it's time for the steering committee to step aside or to at least allow others to be included in negotiations with developers and the city about what should be in Chinatown.

"They have so much passion, but it becomes the baggage," he said. "They can't see the forest for the trees."

Alfred Liu, the architect who designed the archway in the 1980s, even balked at Wang's unofficial title as the community's mayor. "The mayor of Chinatown. . . . Did we have an election?" said Liu, who has ditched his seat on the steering committee for one with the revitalization council.

The city Office of Planning gives weight to the steering committee's recommendations when considering developments. Wang, with Cheng at his side, represented the neighborhood in one of the biggest developments in recent history in Chinatown: a 360,000-square-foot office building with a 300-space underground parking garage along Massachusetts Avenue proposed last year by developer Kingdon Gould III.

The steering committee and the revitalization council, along with downtown business groups, liked the idea because the block had deteriorated -- it's dotted with abandoned houses -- and Gould promised to incorporate Chinese motifs in the design. The hope was that the development could revitalize that area, a block from the bustle of H Street.

That's where the alley fight came in.

As other developers have done, Gould said he offered the steering committee a "benefits package" as a good-neighbor gesture. He offered $1 million for affordable housing in Chinatown, 13,000 square feet of space for community activities, $100,000 in grants for programs and 10 free parking spots for committee members, according to documents submitted to the D.C. Council.

Gould's pledges hinged on closing part of the alley to make a service entrance, according to documents submitted to the D.C. Council.

But the alley happens to be right behind the homes of several steering committee members. They objected, and Wang and Cheng backed them, citing inconvenience and a potential increase in crime.

At a June council hearing, Gould testified that Wang and Cheng would not compromise.

Gray stepped in to mediate the impasse behind closed doors.

Gould apparently then decided to go around the steering committee. He redesigned the plans and cut the community space to 4,100 square feet. Instead of allowing the steering committee to operate the space, as they wanted, he specified that several community groups share it when the building is completed in about 3 1/2 years.

Gould also pledged $600,000 to the Chinese Community Church for roof repairs, a discount to Asian retailers who might want to lease retail space in the new building and $850,000 to a nonprofit group in Adams Morgan for affordable housing -- a couple of miles from Chinatown.

Last month, the D.C. Council approved the terms, 12 to 1. The dissenter was council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), a longtime friend of Cheng. "I think Tony Cheng and the old-timers have been discarded," he said.

In the end, the deal satisfied neither side. The revitalization council, which supported Gould's plan, says that the affordable housing money never should have left Chinatown's borders and that the $600,000 given to the church should have been spread among more groups.

"As a community, we missed an opportunity," Chi said.

And no one seems to share Gould's vision of shared community space, either.

Chi and others are fighting to get it, saying Cheng and Wang monopolize the Chinatown Community Cultural Center, a 3,000-square-foot space developer Herb Miller gave the community when he built Gallery Place.

Cheng is the center's president; Wang is vice president. Cheng's daughter is executive director; Wang's daughter teaches English classes there.

Wang denies monopolizing the center and argues that it has been put to good use, emphasizing the table tennis and martial arts classes.

Dwan Tai, a former member of the steering committee, wants Gray to help other groups get use of the Gould community center.

Gray said his biggest achievement so far has been to get the two groups in the same room. He'd like to create an inclusive and neutral Chinatown Advisory Planning Council to divvy up use of the new community center and create a vision for Chinatown.

Wang said he knows the two groups must unite for Chinatown to survive and flourish.

"There's an old Chinese saying, 'When two fish fight, who wins?' " he said.

He paused, then put up his fists and hit them together to show their battle. "The fisherman."

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