By Patrick Hedlund
DNAinfo News Editor
CHINATOWN — Charges of racism by proponents of a business improvement district in Chinatown entered an already heated debate over the controversial plan that would include a sliver of what many see as their turf in SoHo.
The proposal landed Thursday night in front of Community Board 2's land use committee, one of many stops for the BID's supporters during their push to establish a street-cleaning program that would charge property owners for the services.
Since the district covers streets on what SoHo residents consider their neighborhood — specifically a strip on the west side of Lafayette Street between Grand and Broome streets — a few locals spoke out in opposition to the plan they believe infringes on their interests.
After one longtime SoHo resident, Lora Tenenbaum, argued that the BID needs to butt out of her neighborhood because the area already benefits from street-cleaning services, one of the district's chief backers suggested that the comments were motivated by something else.
"It's silly to the point of racist," said Michael Salzhauer, co-chairman of the BID's steering committee, of resistance to a program aimed at beautifying local streets. "Cleaning benefits everybody."
Committee member Tobi Bergman took issue with the allegations, saying that people should be careful about throwing around claims of racism when discussing downtown's borders.
"It is a city of neighborhoods, and I do think names… are important," he said.
Nonetheless, an employee of P.S. 130 on Baxter Street, which lies within the BID's proposed boundaries, countered that "racism is alive and well" in these types of proceedings.
The employee, Kate Webster, noted that one of the school's Chinese-American principals endured racist remarks from non-Chinese parents when she took over the post.
But Bergman shot back that race has nothing to do with a business improvement district.
"It sounds to me like people are being accused of racism," he said. "That strikes me as entirely inappropriate."
Members did acknowledge that the street in question, which covers just seven lots on side of Lafayette Street, does appeared "gerrymandered" into the plan, but proponents said that property owners there had already expressed a desire to be included in the BID.
Ultimately, the committee voted near-unanimously to approve the proposal, asking only that its organizers provide evidence that owners in the contested area on Lafayette Street support the plan.
The majority of speakers during the lengthy meeting voiced support for the BID, including Councilwoman Maragaret Chin, multiple property owners, residents, and even a representative from a swanky hotel located within the district's proposed boundaries.
"Whether you're for or not for the BID, this is what democracy's all about," Chin said of the dialogue surrounding the plan, prior to Salzhauer's statements.
"Take a leap of faith with us that this is the right thing to do," she added.
The business improvement district is the brainchild of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development, which has used millions of city grant money to clean the neighborhood's streets since 2006. However, the funds will run out at the end of the year, so the Partnership has been touring local community in search of approval for the plan.
Community Board 3, where the bulk of the district would land, unanimously supported the program last week.
The proposal goes before Community Board 1 on Dec. 15.