Tensions between members of Mayfair’s Chinese community and a group of mostly white residents nearly boiled over last week during a community meeting.
The main issue in front of the Mayfair Civic Association on April 15 was whether Voix, a soon-to-open restaurant and karaoke club, should be allowed to construct a rooftop deck at the former Teamsters building at Cottman and Brous avenues.
Ultimately, no public vote was taken, and the developer agreed to work with the civic association and Sixth District Councilman Bobby Henon’s office to draw up a community benefits agreement to address neighbors’ concerns.
Voix operator Steven Zheng said Eastern Plaza LP, developer of 2825-35 Cottman Ave., has since decided to drop the idea of a roof deck for now.
Several members of the local Chinese community told the Northeast Times after the meeting that they felt the proceeding was permeated by racism and discrimination.
“I don’t think they gave Chinese the opportunity to speak,” said Pearl Huynh, president of the Northeast Philadelphia Chinese Association. “They treated the whole Chinese community with discrimination and disrespect.”
Huynh, Zheng and others said people who had a right to register with the civic association and vote on zoning matters were turned away.
“We felt that through the registration process, applicants were being treated unfairly,” Zheng said in a statement. “Qualified applicants were rejected for unknown reasons.”
Some were booted for not being citizens or using water bills to establish proof of residency, according to a group of Chinese residents who attended the meeting. They wanted to remain anonymous for fear of harassment.
Mayfair Civic Association President Donny Smith said the April 15 meeting was uncharted territory for the group. A flood of new members showed up, including people who lived in other neighborhoods and others with documents that didn’t match their names, he said.
Smith said he met with Zheng last month to discuss the zoning meeting.
“I told Steven: I totally get that you’re trying to stack the deck, but all I’m asking is that everybody that signs up lives in Mayfair,” he said.
“I’m trying to be fair to everybody,” Smith added. “I’m trying to be fair to the new community and the old community.”
More than 150 people, a significant portion of them Asian, packed into the gym at the Mayfair Community Center for the meeting, which started more than 30 minutes late because residents were still registering with the civic association.
It was a contentious gathering from the outset, and a police officer was stationed at the entrance to the gym throughout the proceedings.
During a discussion about another zoning issue (a permit for a side deck at 7413 Brous Ave.), an older white man questioned who would be allowed to vote.
“What makes a person eligible to vote? Do you have to be a citizen? Do you have to be a member of the neighborhood? What else is the criteria or can you bus people in from a different part of the city to vote?” said the man, who identified himself as a U.S. citizen and Vietnam War veteran. “I question some of the other people that are here to vote. Were they checked through their identification?”
Others raised more practical concerns. When the conversation shifted to the former Teamsters building, a number of people who live close by said they were concerned about parking, noise from the roof deck, drunken revelers and congestion.
It’s not the first time neighbors have expressed their anxieties about the project.
Last October, Eastern Plaza came to the civic association with the same zoning application for a rooftop deck. Residents voted overwhelmingly to oppose the project, and the company withdrew the application — only to resubmit it in March.
Smith questioned the strategy.
Zheng’s “answer to the problem was to just pack the room full of people and vote against the neighbors that live there, and that’s what happened,” Smith said. “It’s legal. He can do it. I don’t know that that necessarily working with the community.”
Eastern Plaza’s attorney, Michael Phillips, said Voix has tried to address neighbors’ concerns by improving lighting, offering free valet parking and hiring a security company to patrol the restaurant and karaoke lounge.
The property has 16 parking spots, and Voix plans to have attendants park cars at the China Gourmet lot at St. Vincent and Revere streets.
Phillips said Voix will serve as an upscale restaurant and lounge and won’t be a rowdy spot.
“At the end of the day, we believe that this amenity in this location is going to draw additional tax revenue into Mayfair and help revitalize the commercial corridor on Cottman Avenue,” he said.
Henon stepped in before any potential vote and asked that Phillips and Eastern Plaza postpone their case in front of the Zoning Board of Adjustment. The roof deck application was scheduled for a hearing Wednesday, April 17.
The councilman asked that Eastern Plaza resolve a Department of Licenses and Inspections violation related to asbestos and that the developer work with his office to iron out a community benefits agreement before moving forward.
Phillips said the city found some tiles containing asbestos on April 9, and remediation work was scheduled for last week.
The civic association decided not to take a vote since Phillips said the application was going to be continued.
Chinese community members said they were very upset that residents weren’t polled. They want the Voix project to move forward and felt their input wasn’t taken into account.
“The Chinese really want this,” Huynh said. “His development is bringing up the property values around here.”
Huynh lives in Lawncrest but said she attended the meeting because she wanted to speak for Chinese residents, many of whom don’t speak English or are not comfortable with the language. Some felt the vote was put off because members of the civic saw that a majority of the residents in attendance were Chinese. The first zoning matter on Brous Avenue, which also involved a Chinese property owner, was supported by a wide margin.
Smith said the civic association was fully prepared to vote on the roof deck and printed and distributed ballots for that purpose.
Mayfair’s Chinese population has been growing rapidly, and a rift has emerged between some longtime residents and the newcomers.
In 2000, Asians made up 5.7 percent of the population of the 19149 zip code, which includes Mayfair and parts of Oxford Circle and Castor Gardens. That figure is now over 15 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey.
Chinese residents of Mayfair told the Times that they have experienced instances of racism, harassment and even violence.
Members of the Northeast Sisters dance group, which practices regularly in the Mayfair Elementary School yard, said a group of white kids has thrown rocks and cans at them. One woman was allegedly pushed over by a man on a bicycle on her way home.
Huynh and members of Mayfair’s Chinese community said they want to help build a community, not divide it.
“Tonight, I witnessed a community that is very divisive,” Huynh said near the end of the zoning meeting. “We want to be part of the community. We want to work together with you.” ••