LOWER EAST SIDE — Whether it is recommending dumplings at Joe's Shanghai on Pell Street or tinkering with the neighborhood's retail diversity, Gigi Li has plenty of local knowledge to complement her role as new chairwoman of Community Board 3.
Li took the reins of Board 3 — which covers the East Village, Lower East Side and Chinatown — almost two weeks ago, when previous chairman Dominic Pisciotta Berg decided to step down from the post four years.
Now Li, 30, said she will use the position to continue his legacy, which includes a giant leap forward for the controversial development of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA), while adding her own fingerprint with a focus on social-service funding.
"I have always had a really strong connection to Chinatown and the Lower East Side," said Li, who can often be found walking her pug Vito at Corlears Hook Park on the East River, or grabbing a nightcap at the Whiskey Tavern on Baxter Street.
While Li boasts Hong Kong as her birthplace and Long Island as her childhood home, weekends were always spent in Chinatown doing extra schoolwork or taking dance lessons. She eventually moved into the neighborhood in 2009.
"I felt like at the time there were not very many Chinatown residents on the board, and I thought that was something very important," said Li, as to why she became involved with CB3.
Now Li will be putting in 20 to 30 volunteer hours a week as chair of the board, an avenue for local business owners and residents to advise on issues such as urban planning, social services and city budgets. In Li's new role, she will oversee about 50 fellow members, as well as the numerous committees and task forces that make up the board.
At her day job, Li works as co-director of the Neighborhood Family Services Coalition, a local policy and advocacy nonprofit.
"It is an intersection of what I do," said Li, who sees the community board as a natural progression because of the work she already does in the community.
At CB3's full board meeting last week, local politicians such as Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and State Sen. Tom Duane honored Pisciotta Berg, Li's predecessor. They praised him for honing the board's focus on gay marriage, the arts and overseeing huge progress in the previously stagnant multi-block SPURA development along Delancey Street.
While Li intends to focus on SPURA as it continues through the city planning process, she will also extend Pisciotta Berg's focus on retail diversity.
"The board is going to have to look very closely at retail diversity and how we want to see the economic evolution of our communities," she said. Li is toying with the idea of proposing a special district rezoning in the board's area to protect retail diversity.
"You might be able to say 'no' to the combining of store fronts for larger stores," said Li, of a potential rule for the district that could discourage big-box stores from moving into the area.
Numerous special districts already exist in Manhattan and use such rules as height restrictions on buildings or requiring them to have specific facades to aid in urban planning, according to the Department of City Planning's website.
With Li's background in social work — she graduated from Columbia University in 2007 with a master's in the field — ensuring adequate funding for social services in the board's area is also close to her heart.
"We are getting a lot more high-income residents, but we are still retaining the traditional Lower East Side recent immigrants," she said. "I want to make sure because of a growing income gap that our district is not losing social services that our residents need."
Li referred to the recent decision by the city to cut after-school funding, which will result in thousands of lost placements for kids — a move that will disproportionately affect lower Manhattan, according to City Councilwoman Margaret Chin.
"We are seeing a degradation of funds by zip code that do not always seem accurate," Li noted.
As she takes over the role of chairwoman, Li is still relieved that Pisciotta Berg continues to be involved with the board and within easy reach for advice. She also praised the support of administrative workers in the board's office, such as longtime district manager Susan Stetzer.
"I think the first year is always challenging with transition and figuring out how you are going to make it your own," she said.