In recent years, while glass towers mushroomed along the Manhattan shoreline, the tip of the borough’s peninsula eluded the forces of development. Famously home to the last natural forest in the borough, Inwood also ranked ninth-to-last in the city—and in Manhattan, last of all—in the number of permits issued for new residential construction in 2014.
Ydanis Rodriguez, the councilman for Washington Heights and Inwood, has long believed his neighborhood could do better. In 2013, he proposed a vision he called “Northern Manhattan 2030.” Admonishing the Bloomberg administration for excluding Inwood from its citywide planning efforts, Rodriguez called on the next mayor to heed his vision.
It included rezoning the east side of Inwood by the Harlem River and decking over the MTA rail yards to facilitate the creation of at least 10,000 units of affordable housing, along with retail, community space and an early childhood learning center. It also included a new CUNY campus and, in later renditions of the plan, a number of initiatives to turn Inwood into a health and technology hub that would attract businesses like Google and create opportunities for local students to enter careers in technology.
Two years later, Rodriguez had his calls answered: In the spring of 2015, his district became the latest pick for a rezoning as part of Mayor de Blasio’s plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing. While in other rezoning neighborhoods, the Department of City Planning has been the lead facilitator, in Inwood the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC), is spearheading the study in partnership with Rodriguez and other city agencies.
The city’s plan does not adopt Rodriguez’s original vision of building over the MTA rail yards: The rail yards are still in use and such a project, an EDC spokesperson said, would be technically challenging and expensive. The plan does, however, involve rezoning the areas on either side of the railroad. Ninth Avenue, currently home to a mix of warehouses, wholesale stores, churches, parking lots, and other industrial uses, would be transformed into a thriving “main street” with housing, retail, community spaces and access to the waterfront. While the plan also originally included zoning changes on Broadway, EDC recently scaled back the plan to focus solely on the areas east of 10th Avenue after community members expressed a preference to preserve the “distinctive built character” of the neighborhood’s west side.
The city’s latest recommendations, crafted based on community feedback, include upgrades to traffic intersections on 10th Avenue, investments in bike paths and streetscaping, resources to assist local small business owners and connect Inwood residents to job opportunities, and the provision of STEM programming in local schools, among other initiatives. The ultimate goal, Rodriguez told City Limits, is to improve the lives of existing residents while also making the neighborhood a destination for newcomers.
The Inwood study provides yet another variation on the rezoning process, which has differed in each neighborhood targeted for development. In East New York, city agencies spearheaded the plan, with the local councilmember playing the role of a negotiator on behalf of the community. In East Harlem, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito convened a committee to develop a plan of its own, and is still negotiating to ensure the city adopts it. Rodriguez’s partnership with city agencies is unique, raising questions about what kind of plan such an arrangement will deliver.
As evidenced by an EDC promotional video, some community leaders are excited about the changes the rezoning will bring, and impressed by the city’s participatory process. Yet others, while not doubting Rodriguez’s intentions, have expressed a number of concerns, including the potential changes to neighborhood character, stress on local infrastructure, and risk of displacing current residents by introducing luxury apartments—and high-paying technology companies—along the waterfront.
“I believe Ydanis Rodriguez truly cares about the working class and immigrants,” says Graham Ciraulo, a representative of Northern Manhattan is Not for Sale, a coalition of community groups formed in response to the rezoning. “It’s just a matter of, are we thinking this through? Is this the best way to accomplish this goal?”
Concerns unique to Inwood
In an e-mail to City Limits, EDC representative Stephanie Báez explained that EDC already has a “history of partnering with the Inwood community,” and had in 2011 crafted a plan to revitalize the waterfront by Sherman Creek, about eight blocks south of the rail yard. She added that the corporation “specializes in growing good jobs and strong economic development” and has relationships with many companies, making it well positioned to fulfill the councilman’s goal of spurring the development of a technology hub.
Inwood’s special character, however, invites a variety of different concerns from preservationists, engineers and affordability activists. Nancy Bruning, a member of Inwood Preservation and a board member of Fort Tyron Park Trust, says she is worried the rezoning will bring towers that could disrupt the character of the neighborhood, with its typical six-story buildings.
“We want a better Inwood. We don’t want to turn it to turn into Williamsburg,” she says. While the neighborhood needs more affordable housing, she says a better way to create it would be to support nonprofits to fix up vacant buildings in the neighborhood.
Although the city has not yet recommended specific zoning designations or heights for the proposed developments, her concern is not abstract. She is among the many residents opposing a developer’s proposal for a high-rise apartment complex on Broadway at the edge of Fort Tyron Park. As the first rezoning application under the mayor’s newly enacted mandatory inclusionary zoning policy, it has been the subject of citywide attention as well as the ire of local residents, who fear the development will create shadows and obstruct views of the park.
Others worry that adding thousands of apartments will exacerbate overcrowding in subway stations and worsen a perceived lack of parking spaces. Obie Bing, a member of Conservancy North and a retired Con Edison engineer, is concerned about how an influx of large buildings will stress Inwood’s vulnerable electrical and gas distribution systems.
The neighborhood’s infrastructure is not new. Pre-war apartment buildings make up nearly three quarters of Inwood’s housing stock. The neighborhood’s water, electric, and gas infrastructure is also antiquated, with gas mains over 150 years old and 80 to 90-year-old electrical distribution cables. Bing says Inwood’s aging distribution system was responsible for the neighborhood’s 1999, 2003, and 2006 power outages and, because of network connections, contributed to power outages in other boroughs. While the network is not the only one in the city with century-old infrastructure, he says it is among the oldest and most neglected by Con Edison.
“We certainly don’t want to see developers come in with 30- to 40-story buildings, even 25-story buildings, and have those buildings be attached to an infrastructure that’s well over 100 years old,” Bing says.
Rodriguez and EDC told City Limits they would ensure the city makes a sufficient investment in updating neighborhood infrastructure. Yet while the city’s Department of Environmental Protection can commit to renovating Inwood’s sewer systems—as they have in East New York—Bing says the city has less power to control over how Con Edison handles its gas- and electric-distribution equipment. The former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and the Public Service Commission have already faulted Con Edison for failing to replace the neighborhood’s antiquated infrastructure in the past. Bing says “the city or state would need to urge the Public Service Commission to see that Con Edison does their job,” possibly by rejecting rate increases if Con Edison fails to make the proper investments.
Displacement a widespread fear
Stakeholders’ most widespread concern, however, is that the rezoning will further destabilize the neighborhood’s rent-regulated housing stock. In 2011, 86.5 percent of Inwood’s units were rent-stabilized—the greatest percentage of any neighborhood in the city. While this rent regulation may help to insulate some Inwood residents from rapid rent increases, it also makes them vulnerable to harassment from landlords seeking to exploit regulatory loopholes.
“If we make all these improvements without prioritizing affordability of the new units and robust preservation of the existing rent-stabilized housing stock, then there’s going to be these beautiful new waterfront areas unaffordable to most current residents, which will drive up the cost of all the housing stock, creating more incentive for landlords to push out existing tenants to get higher rents from new tenants,” said Tiffany Lee, director of Social Justice Ministry at Altagracia Center for Faith and Justice, in an e-mail to City Limits.
Inwood’s immigrant community is already facing landlord harassment and displacement. From 1990 to 2010-2014, Inwood had the 9th highest rent increases among the city’s top 15 gentrifying neighborhoods, according to a Furman Center report. From 2000 to 2014, the neighborhood lost 4 percent of its Latino population while experiencing increases in white residents, the share of nonfamily households, and the share of adults with a college degree.
To Rodriguez, it is exactly the threat of gentrification that justifies the rezoning. The plan, he says, will result not only in the creation of new affordable units through mandatory inclusionary housing and city subsidy, but will also harness the city’s resources to preserve the existing housing stock.
“If we don’t have a plan to preserve a large percentage of apartments…our community will be changed in a way we cannot control,” he told City Limits.
While it remains unclear how many affordable units the plan will create, according to Báez there are “limited city-owned properties” in the rezoning area that could be used to maximize the development of affordable housing. In addition, the city’s draft recommendations include a number of strategies to preserve the neighborhood’s existing affordable units. Some reflect the city’s usual approach, such as providing legal services to tenants, while other strategies are more specific to the neighborhood. They include establishing a community-based working group to identify problem landlords, hosting tenant resource fairs and partnering with the state to improve compliance with rent regulations.
Yet some stakeholders say the city could go further to protect Inwood natives from displacement. Lee said the plan should include anti-harassment provisions that would require landlords seeking to modify or demolish a building to obtain a certificate of no harassment, as well as a broader provision of legal services, including for tenants who have not yet reached eviction proceedings.
Several stakeholders told City Limits that while they liked the idea of creating opportunities for Inwood’s youth to enter careers in technology, they were concerned students in Inwood’s struggling schools would have difficulty accessing the jobs and that the hub would potentially exacerbate gentrification by attracting new, highly-educated residents to the area.
“If you bring in tech companies, tech workers are going to want to come live up here. They make higher incomes and the landlords are going to want to raise rents,” says Ciraulo.
Marisol Alcantara of Northern Manhattan Democrats for Change called for more discussion on how the city would connect residents to construction jobs generated by the rezoning and how the city would relocate the existing businesses on 9th Avenue.
“It’s not like there’s nothing happening there,” says Alcantara. “It’s a vibrant economy there that employs a lot of people—probably a lot of [undocumented] people.”
Rodriguez does not believe his plan will harm the area’s workers. He says he is engaging with small business owners in the rezoning area, and expressed confidence that the rezoning would benefit them. And he believes his vision for a technology hub will benefit local students, but said he’d also like to see a building trades training center in the community.
Some distrust in the process itself
Rodriguez and EDC say they are committed to an inclusive planning process; according to an EDC brochure, in 2015 they engaged 1,500 people through seven public events and collected nearly 500 community surveys.
Yet last week, Rodriguez’s office generated a backlash when it tried to set up a “stakeholder working group” only open to selected invitees. Although those invited included a wide cross-section of groups, several key stakeholders were excluded and had to petition to be invited, including Northern Manhattan is Not for Sale and Altagracia Center for Faith and Justice.
Those who did attend the working group meeting said the participants were mostly organizational leaders, with few of the working-class immigrants who live in the rezoning area, and no Spanish translation available at the event. Little of importance, was decided at the meeting, however, with participants asked to rank their priorities for their neighborhood, as done previously in the community survey.
Speaking with City Limits, Rodriguez said unabashedly that he hoped to bring together “all the executive directors of our community…because they’ve been with us since the beginning,” but that anybody who requested to participate was also invited. In addition, he said that the group had been brought together to advance the conversation about the rezoning and to enlist their support to plan future public meetings. Crucial decisions about the rezoning would be made by the entire public, he said, and all future meetings would offer Spanish translation.
Yet several community members expressed concern that in general, the city has not been sufficiently engaged with the immigrant community.
“They still are not aware that their community is being rezoned! And most people don’t even know what a rezoning is,” says George Fernandez, former community board 12 chair and a candidate for state assembly. “Outreach efforts have been made but I believe we have not reached enough residents.”
And as stakeholders grow impatient for answers to their concerns, the gaffes with the working group have only fed suspicions that the de Blasio administration, eager to complete another rezoning, may steamroll over neighborhood concerns.
“Has it already been decided? I think that’s a question in the back of everybody’s head,” says Nancy Preston, executive director of the community advocacy group Moving Forward Unidos. “Has it already been decided and we’re just being used to validate it?”
City Limits’ coverage of housing policy is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation.