By Yoav Gonen, THE CITY. This story was originally published on 1/21/20 by THE CITY.
It was touted as a gift from Beijing to Brooklyn: an ornate, 40-foot-tall “friendship” archway to welcome visitors to Sunset Park’s bustling Chinatown.
In April 2013, then-Borough President Marty Markowitz revealed the planned present, which his successor followed up on with dozens of meetings, a pricey excursion to China and multiple submissions of architectural renderings.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams even allocated $2 million in funding for the project, the subject of years-long cajoling of city agencies and celebratory announcements.
Earlier this month, however, the nearly seven-year odyssey of what was to be the city’s first Chinatown archway appeared to come to an abrupt halt.
“The Chinese government has rescinded gifting the city this archway,” Olivia Lapeyrolerie, a City Hall spokesperson, said in response to questions from THE CITY.
“We’ve been working closely with the borough president to identify next steps,” she added.
‘Geopolitical Tensions’ Cited
Officials in Adams’ office wouldn’t say what sparked the pulling of the present, nor when they first learned of the move and what it means for the project’s future.
An Adams spokesperson appeared to pin the blame on U.S.-China relations — without elaborating — even as the two countries reached an initial trade agreement only last week.
“It is unfortunate that geopolitical tensions have complicated the process of receiving this gift and completing the project,” said the spokesperson, Jonah Allon. “We are still determining the best path forward.”
The setback comes more than two years after Adams and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that a nine-pinacled gateway would be donated by the Chaoyang District government of Beijing and erected on Eighth Avenue near 60th Street.
It was to be a cross-cultural “friendship” gift that one Chinese news report likened to the Statue of Liberty, bestowed on a city whose Chinese population is described by local leaders as the largest outside of Asia.
In August 2018, Adams signed an agreement at a Brooklyn Borough Hall ceremony that he said completed the deal — hailing the arch as a “great symbol of our friendship,” according to reports at the time.
An email and phone call to the Chaoyang District government went unanswered.
However, the Chinese consulate in Manhattan said officials in the Beijing district insist the project “has not been canceled.”
“The governments of Chaoyang district and the Brooklyn borough have been maintaining close discussion over the details of the archway project,” a spokesperson for the consulate said. “The government of Chaoyang district hopes the project can make positive progress after the Brooklyn borough goes through its internal procedures for the project.”
No Smooth Sailing
Throughout the past seven years, advocates for the project have repeatedly characterized the road as a bumpy one — full of bureaucratic hurdles in not just two cities, but two countries.
At the 2018 ceremony, Adams called the process “extremely challenging,” according to the Brooklyn Eagle.
“There were days we were frustrated,” he said at the time. “There were days we wanted to give up.”
Adams demonstrated early in his tenure at Borough Hall that the archway project was a priority when he led an eight-person delegation on a nine-day trip to China in May 2014. The jam-packed itinerary included meetings with Beijing government officials to move along the transfer of the archway.
The trip was funded by a nonprofit launched by Adams’ volunteer liaison to the Chinese community in Brooklyn, Winnie Greco. She was among the community members who proposed the idea to Markowitz, the former borough president told THE CITY Monday.
The city’s conflicts of interest board approved the trip, including roughly $800 for meals and lodging paid for by the Chinese government.
The nonprofit backing the archway, the Sino-America New York Brooklyn Archway Association Corp, was formed to advance the project and help fund operating expenses — while construction costs were to be borne by the Chinese government.
The group raised roughly $125,000 from 2013 to 2017, according to available 990 tax filings, but spent most of that money along the way. Expenses include nearly $7,000 to fund the 2014 trip to China for Adams and his then deputy borough president, Diana Reyna.
A website for the nonprofit features photos and videos related to the project, but the writing that’s in English is nearly all placeholder text.
Donors to the nonprofit have included Maggie Gu, the owner of a restaurant just blocks away from where the archway would be installed. She gave $10,000, the 990 filings indicate.
Gu also has contributed to Adams’ political campaigns, giving $4,500 over two election cycles, campaign finance board filings show.
A second $10,000 donor to the nonprofit was Steven Shu, who owns a commercial condo blocks from the proposed archway site. Shu, who was listed as part of the delegation on the 2014 trip, and a relative have given a total of $3,000 to Adams’ political campaigns.
Years of Progress
In 2015, Reyna attended at least five meetings regarding the archway — including with community board members and top City Hall staffers, records show.
In July 2016, the architect on the project, Raymond Chan, submitted a 32-page application to the city’s Public Design Commission that put the total cost at $2.3 million.
Chan has donated $5,800 to Adams’ political campaigns, according to campaign filings.
The commission, which is responsible for approving all public art works in the city, gave its preliminary approval for the plans in September 2016, and to revisions in July 2017.
At a news conference in Sunset Park in October 2017 — featuring a giant image of the archway in the backdrop — de Blasio and Adams announced the deal as essentially a fait accompli.
“This will become a site that people come to from all over the city,” the mayor said.
Adams added that the import of the exchange was not just cultural, but marked a potential economic boon for Sunset Park.
“That archway is going to be like a magnet,” he said. “We’re hoping when people come here to take a picture at the only nine-roofed archway in this country, that they would stop and they would shop, that they would spend money, that they would look to develop and have hotels and other great things in this community.”
At the time, the city Department of Transportation said it would launch a study of pedestrian and vehicular traffic over a 26-block stretch of Eighth Avenue.
The study is now expected to start in the “coming months,” city officials said.