A study on Chinatown small businesses looked at real estate development’s impact and potential for displacement. Researcher Karmen Cheung looked at East Coast Chinatowns in Boston, New York City and Philadelphia. She conducted a total of 33 interviews in all cities as part of a master’s thesis in public planning at MIT, along with incorporating municipal reports, community organization information, census data and newspaper articles.
“I focused on vibrant ‘living Chinatowns’ that have a significant population of ethnically Chinese people, living, shopping and working there,” Cheung said. “Each has the presence of other pockets of immigrant Asian enclaves in the same metropolitan area that directly complement or compete with the historical Chinatown core.”
Development is on the rise in these three urban Chinatowns. Boston’s Chinatown had 18 real estate developments from 2006 to 2017, while Philadelphia had 17 and New York City had 38. Boston’s developments included 12 residential projects, five hotels and one retail/office commercial space.
For small businesses, development has increased retail space in all cities except New York’s Chinatown. Cheung focused on ground-floor retail as an indicator, as it has a direct impact on small local businesses. Vacancies were low in Boston and Philadelphia, while vacancies were rising in New York City, due to speculation that property values will continue to rise.
The Chinatown neighborhoods were selected for their common traits. Each is located in downtown or central business district, housing vibrant ethnic enclaves. All three have an increasing influx of non-Asian individuals and new real estate developments pose potential threats to the continued existence of the ethnic enclave. Finally, each Chinatown has been established for many years, with other pockets of immigrant Asian enclaves in the same metropolitan area, such as Malden and Quincy in greater Boston.
Residential populations have shifted over time. Boston’s Asian residential base is stable but the populations itself has become increasingly non-Asian. Philadelphia’s Chinatown has increased all its residential populations. In New York City’s Chinatown, its overall residents have decreased, with fewer Asians and more non-Asians.
The area studied for Boston’s Chinatown covers Essex Street to Castle Square, right on the border of the Theater District and the South End. New York’s Chinatown was defined as the one in Manhattan, encompassing Canal, Grand and Mott streets. Philadelphia’s Chinatown stretches from Vine Street in the north to Arch Street in the south, and from North 11th Street and North 8th Street in the east to North Broad Street in the west.
Property taxes for all three Chinatowns are increasing. Boston’s property tax increases are moderate, while New York City’s property taxes are growing significantly. In Philadelphia, property taxes are increasing as its tax system is in transition.
Retail space inventory, residential populations, occupancy cost, ownership and the business community were measured for neighborhood displacement risk. High risk of displacement would mean significant loss of ground floor retail, the residential base changes, occupancy costs are high, significant turnover in ownership and a fractured business community. Low risk means all factors are relatively stable. Boston scored at moderate risk of displacement, based on this risk assessment.
The three Chinatowns have a historical existence of strong family associations that own land. They also have local nonprofit organizations that have historically focused their work on affordable housing and workers’ welfare. In Boston, Cheung’s interviews included the Chinatown Business Association, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, Chinatown Main Streets, members of various family associations, Chinatown store owners, community developer the Asian Community Development Corporation, and many others.
The paper includes policy recommendations to give incentives, such as lower property taxes for renting to a locally owned or legacy business. Owners should also be penalized for intentional vacancies. Finally, there should be devoted resources to track, organize and empower small businesses to vocalize their concerns.
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