A hundred years ago being a Progressive meant you were in favor of civil service reform, eugenics, and the referendum. Nowadays being a Progressive means being in favor of social and economic justice and against stop-and-frisk…I guess. It isn’t entirely clear what the label means. But whatever it is, if it includes Margaret Chin, Council Member for CD 1, it doesn’t mean much of anything at all.
CM Chin, a member of the Council’s Progressive Caucus, represents Lower Manhattan, including Chinatown. She got her start in politics as a housing advocate and was a founding member of Asian Americans for Equality, which originated as a front group for the Communist Workers Party. She appears to have pedaled back from her Maoist commitments since then, and even from the rather less stringent doctrines of the Progressive Caucus.
Signing on with Jobs for New York, the political action committee of the Real Estate Board of New York, Margaret Chin has endorsed the platform of the most pro-developer, anti-tenant organization in the city. REBNY has promised to spend $10 million in 2013 to defeat candidates opposed to its agenda. So far this season, Jobs for New York has spent more than $80,000 on Chin’s mailers, one of which calls her “Maragret.” Coming from a soi-disant “passionate advocate for tenants’ rights,” Chin's evident doublethink is dizzying.
Chin’s record in her district on development issues is terrible. When she took office, the oldest building on the Bowery was a circa-1817 Federal Era wood framed structure at 135 Bowery. First American International Bank, a local company, owned the building, which was designated as a landmark in June 2011 by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Under Council tradition, local Members direct their colleagues how to vote on most land use proposals, and Chin urged removal of the landmark designation, allowing the owner to destroy the historic property, which was in fact torn down.
Executives and employees of the First American International Bank then contributed $5,910 to Chin’s re-election campaign.
Council Member Chin, who had originally claimed to support the landmarking of 135 Bowery, argued that, “there is opportunity on the site to build commercial space that is so needed in the Chinatown community for the small businesses.” She claimed repeatedly that the commercial space would provide “affordable office space,” that would be below market-rate.
Here we see the shibboleth “affordable” brought out like a fetish to dispel criticism of real estate development. Affordable housing is always promised, but at least that is an actual thing, which can be given to people with low incomes. But how would “affordable office space” be allocated? To businesses that need more money? To non-profits run by her supporters? It is totally absurd and fantastically cynical for Chin to make such a promise.
In another case where Margaret Chin set aside Progressive principles of transparency and open government, we find that 183 East Broadway, owned by Ching Sun “Norman” Wong, was built in contravention of building code. It was too tall and violated the “sliver law.” It did not have enough open space. Demolition and structural work caused neighboring buildings to crack. Its scaffold fell on and hurt a pedestrian. The city halted construction.
Wong’s lawyer pled to the community board that his client, who owns a real estate company, is “in the noodle business…doesn’t know much about real estate.” He also said that Wong gave the community “$150,000 in grants and donations” (unspecified), and wanted help to finish building the structure without having to follow the law.
The board voted to support Wong, and the Bureau of Standards and Appeals went along with the board. Presumably Council Member Chin could have stepped in at any time, but why should she? Norman Wong gave her campaign $2,750.
When I interviewed Margaret Chin in 2009, I asked her about NYU’s plans for expanding its footprint through the lower Village. Chin said forcefully, “NYU needs to be reined in, and made to understand that lower Manhattan is not a college town.” Once elected however, Council Member Chin went along with the Speaker, and approved NYU’s plans to continue devouring downtown.
Assuming Margaret Chin is re-elected, it will be interesting to see what happens next term when the Progressive Caucus reconstitutes itself. Will Chin, a “proud member,” remain as such? Or will the Caucus expel this running dog from its midst?