Design for a New 'Gateway' Chinatown Tower Is Blasted by CB1 Committee

Rendering of The Dragon's Roar, by Lendy Lee, as it would look on the traffic island at the junction of Canal, Baxter and Walker Streets. Rendering: NYCDOT

Jul. 21, 2019

A towering new landmark proposed for Chinatown is getting a heap of resistance from local critics.

The Department of Transportation plans to redesign the traffic island at Canal, Baxter and Walker Streets and last week the agency showed Community Board 1’s Waterfront, Parks and Cultural Committee its proposal for the hard-to-miss main feature: a stainless steel tower of interconnected circular forms that rise high above the busy intersection.

Titled The Dragon’s Roar, it is the work of Lindy Lee, an Australian artist of Chinese heritage who in partnership with design firm UAP and LevenBetts architects are the team selected to create a “dynamic landmark” for the triangle. As part of a city initiative called Gateways to Chinatown, the tower, estimated to cost a little over $1 million, is meant to be a kind of guiding beacon into the neighborhood. The DOT did not give a height for the object but it appears from the renderings to be close to 60 feet.

Architect David Leven said the work draws inspiration from the Chinese Drum Tower and, in a nod to Little Italy, an Italian Campanile. He explained its symbolism as “concentric circles, concentricity if you will, beginning with the individual…within the collectivity, within the community and expanding out to the community, to the nation, to the world.”

“[Lee’s] work is very concerned with the way people move around the work and understand its surface aesthetic as well as the metaphors that she works with,” he also noted.

The committee and others viewing the renderings responded with simpler descriptions of the piece.

“This project is a mess,” said committee member Wendy Chapman.

“It looks like a bullet ridden artifact from a war-torn neighborhood,” said Chinatown resident Karen Low. “Is that the major metaphor for Chinatown?”

“Chinatown is an old community and you’re shoving modern art right in the middle of it,” complained Joe Lerner, a committee member. “And it’s sort of disturbing my eye.”

Many in the room said the piece lacks clear cultural references to the neighborhood—Chinese or Italian—echoing comments the design team and DOT officials heard during their presentation the week before at Community Board 3. Karlin Chan, a Chinatown activist, said CB3’s Transportation Committee was “stunned” by the proposal. “Personally, it reminds me of stacked tin cans after used for plinking,” he wrote in a Bowery Boogie op-ed. “Anyone looking at the artist’s rendering would be challenged to find any connection whatsoever to Chinatown or Little Italy.”

This controversy comes on the heels of one last year when the Chinatown Partnership, a neighborhood improvement organization, and the DOT proposed to commemorate the Chinese Year of the Dog by installing a “Dogman” statue on Chatham Square’s Kimlau War Memorial Plaza. Opponents nixed the plan after complaining that it was disrespectful to the memory of the Chinese-American soldiers honored by the memorial. Instead, the statue wound up just outside of Chinatown, in Foley Square.

Emily Johnson of UAP said the design for The Dragon’s Roar will evolve. “We’re getting a lot of feedback from the community and it’s certainly something that we’re incorporating,” she said.

“This is the concept,” she added, “a stainless steel vertical structure.”

Since 2003, millions of dollars from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. and much planning has gone into short- and long-term efforts to rejuvenate Chinatown, whose businesses suffered with the closure of Park Row after 9/11. The Chinatown Partnership, formed in 2003 and at the forefront of many of those initiatives, is a co-sponsor of Gateways to Chinatown. Wellington Chen, its executive director, declined to comment publicly on this latest plan.

“This is a project in the making for decades,” Neil Gagliardi, the DOT’s director of urban design, said of the Gateway project, noting the “many plans and studies” that go back to 2007 and include public planning forums held in 2012 and 2016. But the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development expects the projects it funds through the LMDC to be completed by the end of 2021, the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. That impending deadline appears to be ramping up the city’s urgency to finally get this Gateway project going. It is unclear whether other projects will follow, but this is one of seven points of entry into Chinatown that have been identified as “Gateways.

“We’re on a tight timeline so we have an intensive process ahead of us for community engagement and design and development and approvals,” Gagliardi said. The design team is expected to return to the board in September with a more “fleshed out” design, leading to a construction start in the winter. (A redesign for the rest of the triangle, including the kiosk and placement of trees, has yet to be presented.)

But this committee was in no rush. It voted to send a letter to DOT, expressing, as committee chair Paul Goldstein put it, “strong concerns and objectionsto the design. Wendy Chapman suggested that the agency be told to start again from scratch.

“It would be hard to make this appropriate the way it is now,” she said.

“It’s sad,” she added, “because I know so much time and energy was put into this.”