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City planners and neighborhood residents map out Chinatown's future

Updated 5:47 p.m.

If city planners get their way, Chicago’s Chinatown will be safer, cleaner, greener, livelier and more educated in decades to come.

On Thursday neighborhood stakeholders gave a green-light to the Chinatown Community Vision Plan, a comprehensive strategy with the input of more than 1,300 residents, workers and business owners, to strengthen the mostly-immigrant enclave.

“We’re looking at this plan as a guide for people who have anything to do with the future development of the community,” said C.W. Chan, chairperson of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community (CBCAC) and co-chair of the planning effort. “So it will be used by the government, and it will be used by the private stakeholders.”

The two-year effort has been led by Chan, 25th ward alderman Daniel Solis, and planners with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP).

“One thing that was unique about this from the start was that the community came to us and requested it,” said Stephen Ostrander, a senior planner with CMAP. “It wasn’t a project through the City of Chicago.”

Unlike Chinatowns in many other cities, Chicago’s has been growing — with population increasing 26 percent between 2000 and 2010 — thanks in part to the continual arrival of new immigrants from mainland China. Chan said through the plan, Chinatown will not just become a more attractive place for visitors, but a more desirable place for its residents to continue to live.

“When we’re talking about economic development for the community, a lot of time we were focusing on tourists — that Chinatown is really a tourist attraction, we have to do everything possible to attract tourism,” said Chan. “When we started engaging and talking to people in the community, we realized that this is not just a tourist attraction.”

The community vision plan talks about improving transportation, supporting businesses, and expanding green space. But it also looks at improving education and workforce development in a place where 65 percent of residents are foreign-born, and a majority struggle with English.

Among the plan’s key recommendations:

  • Improve safety: Make public spaces, such as sidewalks, more attractive and lively to deter crime; improve relations between the community and police.
  • Transportation and circulation: Increase and beautify transit infrastructure; increase bike lanes and bike racks; assess parking needs; improve pedestrian safety at major intersections; better connect “Old Chinatown” (south of Cermak on Wentworth) to “New Chinatown” (north of Archer).
  • Residential community: Make Chinatown more “age-friendly” by enhancing access for people with wheelchairs and strollers; install more public benches; increase the number of assisted-living homes for the elderly.
  • Economic development: Build training and networking opportunities for small business owners; partner with city tourism organizations to market Chinatown; increase the diversity of retail.
  • Education and workforce: Identify documents and applications that the City should translate into Chinese; support parents in navigating and engaging with the public school system; assess the need for a high school in Chinatown; increase vocational ESL training opportunities.
  • Parks and public spaces: Improve park lighting and landscaping to increase safety; encourage proper waste disposal and community street cleanups; increase green spaces and streetscaping.
  • Future development: Consider development uses for vacant lots in and adjacent to Chinatown
  • Long-term capacity building: Develop a plan to continually solicit participation from Chinatown residents and stakeholders; cultivate the next generation of community leaders.

Chan said the seed for the comprehensive plan was planted in 2012, when Chinatown celebrated its 100th anniversary. The milestone provided an opportunity not just to reflect on how the community has sustained itself, but also to consider the possibilities moving forward.

“We came to realize that we have to define our rightful place in the city of Chicago, and be part of the planning and part of the development of the City of Chicago so that we can grow together with the City of Chicago and the region,” said Chan.

There is no dollar figure attached to the plan. Community leaders plan to begin implementing it this summer.

Odette Yousef is WBEZ’s North Side Bureau reporter. Follow her @oyousef and @WBEZoutloud.

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