The historic Chinatown building destroyed by a five-alarm fire in January will receive $80 million in capital funding for its restoration, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Thursday.
The announcement, in the midst of a brutal fiscal forecast for the city, came as a welcome surprise to the non-profit tenants of 70 Mulberry Street in Manhattan. The organizations have been displaced after the fire ripped through the upper floors of the city-owned building January 23rd.
“I needed some hope in this whole scenario of what we're all dealing with. And this is a really big, bright light from our perspective,” said Nancy Yao Maasbach, president of the Museum of Chinese in America, in a phone interview. The museum’s 85,000-item archives were salvaged from storage on the second floor of the building.
“I think this is real. I mean, $80 million,” said Councilmember Margaret Chin, who represents Chinatown, in a phone interview.
“It is Chinatown's history, it's all our history as New Yorkers so we have to find the right way to bring it back,” de Blasio said at his Thursday press briefing. “We need to preserve every piece of history in that building we can and what it means to the community.”
Built in 1893 by architect CBJ Snyder, who was the city Department of Education superintendent of buildings, the facility used to house PS 23 and educated generations of children in the neighborhood, including Chin herself.
After the school closed in 1975, the building was converted into a cultural hub for the community, including Chinatown Manpower Project vocational center, a senior center run by the Chinese-American Planning Council, the United East Athletics Association and H.T. Chen & Dancers company. These non-profits and MOCA have been guaranteed tenancy in the restored building, de Blasio announced.
Originally the city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services had deemed the building too damaged by the fire and unsalvageable, and planned to start demolition by hand on the top three floors in May.
After outcry from residents over what they said was a lack of transparency over the demolition decision, Community Board 3’s Land Use Committee voted at its May 14th meeting to urge the city to improve community involvement while also keeping “some floors of the historic building as a base for the new building,” “thus honoring the work of C.B.J. Snyder and the cultural significance of the building to the Chinatown community.”
Part of the rebuilding process will include the formation of “an advisory committee to support community engagement, and a three-month visioning process to gather public input about the future of the site,” according to a release from the Mayor’s office Thursday. “The City will prioritize options to preserve what is salvageable from the existing structure and a re-development that acknowledges the history and significance of the site.”
Maasbach said the silver lining of rebuilding was adding badly-needed features to the historic building like an elevator. “I think people were torn about the building in a lot of ways because there's so much nostalgia connected with 70 Mulberry,” she said. But “the building needed an elevator. The building needed an improvement on the air circulation and the air conditioning and you know, it needed improvements on the floor. There were lots of things it needed.”
CPC President and Chief Executive Officer Wayne Ho said the senior center would welcome more features to better accommodate their elderly clientele: “We also see this as an opportunity where some of the design didn't make sense with narrow hallways and stairwells that wrapped around -- that was not the best for senior populations or other adults or the disabled,” Ho said. “So we hope that is an opportunity for the interior of the building to be modernized to be more accessible, to have better flow, to maximize space so that we can get more space for classes for individuals for programming -- especially in a post-COVID world, we obviously need as much social distance between staff and clients.”
Dian Dong, Associate Director of HT Chen Dance Center, also noted that the destruction of 70 Mulberry meant that Chinatown lost its only professional black box theater. “But with the rebuilding, we are now going to be able to sit down with a facilitator that DCAS and the city is going to be arranging for, so that community members and tenants of the building will be able to really talk about how to use the space best for their programming,” she said.
Chin added that she’s heard from constituents who see this as an opportunity to build spaces for community functions and performances - whether that’s live shows or basketball courts. “So there are a lot of talks about really having a community theater, where we could have shows and also highlight the cultural performances of all these amateur groups and professional groups that came from China, Hong Kong. I mean, they have artistic talents out there, but they just have no place to showcase them,” Chin said. “And Chinese youngsters, including my son, love basketball. But there’s no gym in Chinatown -- really -- for them to be able to play basketball or volleyball, our young people. So that's something that could happen there.”