Adi Talwar

A view from part of the Sherman Creek area that would be rezoned for high residential densities.

It will be at least another year before the discussion about whether and how to rezone Inwood reaches a conclusion. A meeting on Thursday evening, where residents roundly denounced the latest de Blasio administration proposal, suggested it will be a very long year.

Representatives of the city’s Economic Development Corporation presented the administration’s latest thinking on the northern Manhattan neighborhood at a meeting of Community Board 12’s Land Use Committee (Note: A copy of the presentation is embedded at this article’s end). EDC’s reps stressed how much they had listened and how much the plan had changed over two years of public engagement. But residents said their input had largely been ignored, and argued the most troublesome parts of the mayor’s plan remained unchanged.

“The perception of the community, like it or not, is all they’ve got is our input and they’re going to cherry-pick our input,” said resident Paul Epstein.

The Inwood discussion is one of 10 rezoning processes currently underway around the city in which the administration is seeking to update zoning to promote development and, through the mandatory inclusionary housing tool and other means, spur the production of income-targeted or “affordable housing.”

Plans to rezone Far Rockaway and East Harlem are moving into the final stages of the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP. Meanwhile, areas like Bay Street in Staten Island, Gowanus in Brooklyn, Long Island City in Queens and Jerome Avenue in the Bronx await final proposals. An 11th neighborhood, East New York, has already been rezoned. The Department of City Planning has taken the lead in most neighborhoods but EDC is the driving force in the Rockaways and Inwood.

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Read more on the Inwood Rezoning* * * *

EDC’s Adam Meagher said his agency’s goal was “first and foremost preserving the affordable housing that is here today.” The problem, as EDC sees it, is that, “Zoning in Inwood is over fifty years old and that means it’s not addressing the needs of this community today.” He said rents were rising in the neighborhood because “almost no new housing has been built in recent decades” but also highlighted the risk that “Under current zoning, there is a lot of development that could take place,” so that, “There will be a series of private rezoning proposals over that time that could erode the character” of the area.

“The status quo is not a solution,” Meagher said. “It’s not working.”

The administration’s proposal initially focused on the 10th Avenue corridor north of Dyckman Street, and mostly on the east side of that street, where land is currently zoned for industry. That proposal remains largely intact. It would keep the very tip of the borough zoned to permit industry, but not to require it—providing space should New York Presbyterian Hospital seek to expand from its current hub on the West side of the Avenue.

Further south and more controversially, the Sherman Creek area would be rezoned from mostly manufacturing to a heavily residential mix including high-density, high-rise buildings. Some of these would trigger the mandatory inclusionary housing requirement for a portion of apartments to be income targeted. A goal of the rezoning in this area is to promote public access to the waterfront, although it was not immediately clear how private construction would do that.

Across 10th Avenue, EDC is now proposing rezoning most of the neighborhood to impose new height limits—an effort to preserve the feel of the core residential blocks. On major thoroughfares and at key corners, however, an increase in density—commercial and residential—is proposed.

“The logic is where the transit is strongest, where the wise streets come together,” Meagher said, “it makes sense to have a little more density.”

That comes after attendees at the board’s last Land Use Committee meeting expressed almost unanimous opposition to upzoning the areas west of Tenth Avenue.

On Thursday it was clear Community Board member Barbara Frazier was not convinced, noting that one proposal would permit 14-story buildings in a place where, right now, nothing rises above the ground floor. “To suddenly put a 14-story building there would completely change the area,” she said. “Bad idea. Bad idea. Not appropriate.”

Other speakers raised concerns about placing affordable housing along the Harlem River in an area that is within the 100-year flood zone, especially given the wide margin in estimates of sea-level rise in the near future. Graham Ciraulo argued the rezoning might endanger local supermarkets, who could be priced out of higher-density construction.

“The business district shouldn’t be upzoned. It’s playing with fire,” he said.

Philip Simpson, among others, flagged the connections between the rezoning talk and the controversial plan to redevelop the Inwood library. Among many concerns about the library project is the question of what would replace it during a multiyear construction process. “It was a hot day today. I’m sure there were people in that library cooling off,” Simpson, choking back tears, asked. “Where would they be if that library were torn down?”

The city has said it will find a temporary space in the neighborhood to provide continuous services while the library is under renovation.

A major concern of many in the crowd was not just what EDC was proposing to do in the areas it had targeted for a rezoning, but the problems lurking in the areas the city has not included in the plan. David Friend said the real pressure on affordable housing is south of Dyckman Street, where no zoning changes are in the offing. “Community Board 12 asked the city to protect this part of the district and yet it’s the part that’s being left out,” Friend said.

Some in the crowd felt EDC’s offer to rezone the area west of 10th to salvage its character is a distraction, since there are relatively few developable sites there to protect.

EDC spoke to a packed house that had just voted down a separate, private developer’s bid to upzone a single block to permit higher density and the creation of the kind of rent-restricted units that anchor Mayor de Blasio’s rezoning and housing plans.

A local supermarket owner who also owns two small houses wanted to upzone the block on which the houses sit so he could build a taller building, and include nine income-targeted units. The proposal would also modestly increase the allowable size of the other buildings on the block, which contain rent-regulated housing. Board members and residents worried the proposal would create incentives for landlords to drive out lower-income tenants, as well as change the character of the block—and bolster the rationale to upzone a broader swath of the neighborhood.
The proposal was voted down 9-0 in the Land Use Committee. Once the full community board votes, the matter will proceed to the borough president, then to the City Planning Commission and possibly the City Council, where local member Ydanis Rodriguez will have the final say.
When he spoke after the vote, Rodriguez was heckled by some members of the crowd who disparaged his record on development issues.

Looking ahead to the larger Inwood discussion, Rodriquez said, “We have an interesting few months ahead of us.” He stressed that an ongoing conversation was needed and warned the outcome would not be perfect. The goal, he said, was “to control the gentrification that is changing other neighborhoods.”

EDC, acknowledging the distrust the community feels toward the city and the prospect of sweeping development, insisted the plan is still fluid. “This is a long way from over,” Meagher insisted. “What this is is a proposal at a particular moment in time.”

The next step is the preparation for a draft scope of work for the environmental review. After public engagement around that scope, a draft environmental impact statement would be released, after which the seven-month ULURP process would start.