Proposed Hotel Divides Local Leaders and Community in Little Bangladesh


Developer Mohammed Aziz hopes to build a seven-story hotel and community center for Bangladeshi immigrants at 37-38 73rd Street in Jackson Heights.

A proposed hotel in Little Bangladesh is dividing a community already at odds over the narrow strip, where long-time Jackson Heights residents live alongside Bangladeshi, Indian, and Nepali immigrants, as well as an array of South Asian restaurants and stores.

The seven-story hotel would go up in the heart of Little Bangladesh on 73rd Street, just one block from the main corridor of Little India on 74th Street. On a Wednesday afternoon in late October, people streamed onto the street from the Roosevelt Avenue station in Diversity Plaza, a major pedestrian area at the end of the block. Produce stands spilled out onto the sidewalk in front of Bangladeshi grocery stores, bags of trash piled up awaiting collection, and a steady flow of cars vied for a shortage of parallel parking spots.

Opposition to the hotel is fueled by concerns over street noise, lack of parking on 73rd Street, and the developer’s reputation. But supporters say there’s a dire need for housing and community services for immigrants in the neighborhood.

Local Bangladeshi developer Mohammed Aziz filed plans with the Department of Buildings to construct the 22-unit building at 37-38 73rd Street in July. His proposal describes the building as “transitory housing,” with about 1,900 square feet dedicated for an unspecified “community facility.”

In an interview in September, Aziz said the hotel would help newly arrived Bangladeshis get settled in Jackson Heights. Aziz, a prolific Manhattan developer and former president of the Bangladesh Society, said the idea was initially proposed to him by the immigrant community.

“We have lots of people coming here from home,” said Aziz. “[The hotel] is like a guesthouse. They’re gonna rent a room when they look for a job, then they move.”

The Bangladeshi community is one of the fastest growing in Jackson Heights—replacing many of the first wave of Indian immigrants. Will Spisak, Director of Programs at Chhaya CDC, a community and housing advocacy group for South Asians, said they’ve seen an influx of Bangladeshi immigrants over the past decade. He estimated that 40 percent of the people they now serve are Bangladeshi, with the remainder more or less evenly split among Indian, Pakistani, and Nepali or Tibetan.

“Bangladeshis and Pakistanis have higher rates of poverty than the Indian community,” said Spisak. “Most are working relatively low-wage jobs. They have no savings, no credit. Many are unbanked, and can’t navigate the mainstream financial system.”

While Chhaya offers programs and counseling to guide immigrants through the housing and financial process, Aziz is confident that his hotel will provide a service for the Bangladeshi community at large. He plans to charge below market rate for the rooms, which will be sparsely appointed. He won’t build kitchens, he said, so that guests will have to frequent the Bangladeshi stores and restaurants down the block, thereby boosting business for the entire street.

The Department of Buildings denied Aziz’s hotel plans in August, but new development on the block remains a hot button issue.

The two-story building on the site where Aziz aims to build his hotel is rented to businesses that serve the Bangladeshi community.

The current building on 37-38 73rd Street, just two stories tall, is rented to a handful of businesses—a travel agency, accountants, a driving school, a loan agency—all catering to the Bangladeshi community. One renter, who requested anonymity to protect her business, said the block is already too congested.

“The neighborhood will not be feeling good,” she said. “This road is very crowded. We want a better community, because we do business, but a hotel is very crowded … People are already gathering too much here. This area need[s] quiet place.”

Other renters in the building are more optimistic about Aziz’s plans. Zakeer Hossain Bacchu, the owner of Tripway Travel on the second floor, said its location is ideal for Bangladeshis. “When people come from our country, everyone come[s] to 73rd Street,” he said. “A guesthouse will be good here. For our community, it will be cheap.”

Abu Zafar Mahmood, founder of Bangla Home Health Services & Aides, currently occupies the most space in the building. Mahmood is expanding his business, and he said Aziz promised to give him the second and third floors of his new building.

“We have no guesthouse here for the short-term,” he said. “We need it, so we suggest to him to do it. A guesthouse doesn’t make noise. We don’t make noise.”

A narrow strip of mostly Bangladeshi grocery stores, restaurants, and other businesses line 73rd Street in Jackson Heights, with two notable exceptions—large co-ops flanking the street.

Residents of two luxury co-op buildings, flanking either side of 73rd Street would disagree. The Birchwood House and Sheila Terrace, both built in 1962, have 159 and 85 units respectively. As early as 2011, some Sheila Terrace residents lodged complaints with Queens Community Board 3 over noise, trash, and the presence of street vendors on 73rd Street.

Yollie Evangelista, a 20-year resident of the Birchwood House, said the co-op signed a petition against Aziz’s hotel. She said residents were concerned their rooftop view of Manhattan would be blocked by the hotel, and lamented the changes to her street.

“Before it was not that busy, now there’s a lot of Nepalese, Bangladeshis, Indians,” she said. “There’s a lot of honking, cars, all the problems. The drivers here, they don’t have any discipline. They park on the left and right side of the street, blocking our garage.”

But Jonas Reitz, a 10-year resident of the same building, takes the activity in stride. “People who live on the lower floors are bothered by street noise,” said Reitz, who lives on a higher floor. “But the hustle and bustle is part of the culture of this neighborhood. It is crowded, but that’s par for the course.”

Noise and trash aside, others in the community are wary of the hotel simply because Aziz’s name is attached to it. In 2012, Aziz pleaded guilty to pay-to-play charges and was fined $1,000 by the Manhattan District Attorney. According to investigators, he attempted to bribe District 41 Councilwoman Darlene Mealy with $5,000 cash in exchange for a contract with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Aziz called the incident a “setup,” and insisted that he is no longer dealing with its consequences. “It’s gone, it’s over already,” he said.

In August, District 39 Assemblyman Francisco Moya condemned Aziz’s involvement. “Jackson Heights does not welcome Mr. Aziz’s new hotel because we do not have trust in his integrity,” said Moya in a statement released by his office.

District 25 Councilman Daniel Dromm agreed. “This developer is a bad egg. I cannot support someone with this type of record,” he said.

Spisak said Chhaya CDC both opposes the hotel and questions Aziz’s motives. “We don’t want to see a hotel constructed here. We don’t think it will serve the South Asian community,” he said. “We don’t buy any of the lines he’s fed to the media about making the place a hotel for new arrivals. He has a history of buying properties and flipping them. That’s probably what’s going to happen here.”

Queens Community Board 3 Vice-Chairman Shiv Dass also believes that Aziz has different plans for the building than he’s stated. He said Aziz actually wants to turn the building into a “party hall,” but the Community Board is concerned with this because of the area’s lack of parking. “It will only be good place if he can find parking,” Dass said.

Aziz said he’ll keep trying until his hotel is approved. And he’s certain that Bangladeshis will get the help they need—from each other.

“Indians [are] not that much in Jackson Heights anymore. Jackson Heights is becoming for Bangladeshis now,” he said. “Our community, we have to help each other when people get here for the first time.”


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