Abigail Savitch-Lew

Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez testifies at the hearing for the Inwood rezoning draft scope of work on Thursday, September 14, 2017.

On Thursday night, the first official hearing for the Inwood rezoning featured four hours of passionate testimony, complex and confusing racial tensions, and personal attacks against figures and groups on both sides of the discussion. While there were multiple appeals that the community move past the divisive rhetoric that has consumed the neighborhood for months, it sometimes seemed as if feelings of wrongful accusation and betrayal were proving too strong to overcome.

The Economic Development Corporation’s Inwood rezoning proposal includes a contextual rezoning to preserve the existing character of some residential areas as well as upzonings on some major corridors and in the areas east of 10th Avenue that are currently zoned for manufacturing. Those upzonings will trigger mandatory inclusionary housing, requiring a portion of units to be income-targeted, but many residents fear upzonings will also greatly exaserbate speculation and displacement. The proposal also includes zoning changes to facilitate the redevelopment of the Inwood library with a new library facility, a day-care program and income-targeted housing.

The rezoning is part of a broader plan to boost job growth, invest in infrastructure, preserve existing affordable housing and enable waterfront access along the Harlem River, with about $42 million in early investments already committed, according to EDC. Thursday’s hearing on the draft scope of work, which can be viewed here, marked the beginning of the environmental review process; the proposal is expected to enter the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure at the end of this year.

First to testify was Ydanis Rodriguez, the local councilman who launched the rezoning study in coordination with the Economic Development Corporation and who recently prevailed in the primary against two challengers who vocally opposed the rezoning effort. One might have felt sympathy for Rodriguez as, facing boos from some audience members, he described with seeming earnestness his belief that Inwood children deserved a state-of-the-art library, his frustration with the displacement of tenants in his district and his desire to create affordable housing in a neighborhood where there has been little new construction over the past few decades. He emphasized the ways he had listened closely to the community in the past—disproving spot (single-site) rezonings initiated by developers like the one proposed last summer, and pressing the administration to take up a contextual rezoning.

“This is an ongoing conversation,” he said. “I recognize entirely that there are concerns about what the end result will be and I’m here to say that this where we have to break down and do the work. It is where we need to have productive, level-headed conversations and avoid talking past one another.”

Earlier in the day at a City Hall hearing on the city’s affordable housing subsidy programs, Rodriguez expressed general support for passing the rezoning but concern that the city’s housing subsidy programs did not do anything for families making significantly less than 30 percent AMI ($25,770 for a family of three), and his desire to find a solution that would benefit those families.

Supporters and detractors

But Rodriguez may have also hurt his own cause on Thursday night by repeating, as he did more than once at last Friday’s pre-primary debate, that he refused to engage with constituents who spread “lies” and “mislead” the community by telling others that the library is closing (it will be closed during the redevelopment, which the Department of Housing Preservation and Development expects will be two years). Josue Perez, Rodriguez’s main challenger who won 31 percent of the vote on Tuesday night, threw this back later in the hearing, saying that while he agreed that it was time for the dialogue to be more respectful, “The first step to do that is not to call your constituents liars.” (Perez also acknowledged that Rodriguez did stay and listen through the long night.)

In addition to the boos, many of Rodriguez’s remarks were followed by loud clapping and cheers. Many of those supporters were Latino, which sometimes created at least the appearance that Inwood’s Spanish-speaking community supported the rezoning, while a fair number of the critics were White residents.

A Latina activist, who later testified in Spanish against the plan, put the situation in a different light. She said that when she arrived at the hearing she was amazed to see all the Latino people, considering that she’d never seen so many throughout the rezoning discussions, but that over time she came to think that they were just brought there to support Rodriguez.

City Limits asked a few of the loudest clappers during Rodriguez’s speech if they were affiliated with a particular group. Two said they were employees of Assemblymember Carmen de La Rosa (who testified in support of rezoning and warned against “a mind-frame where change is all bad” while expressing concerns about infrastructure, school capacity, and other issues). Another, Rafael Polanco, said he was friends with Rodriguez. He later testified, explaining that he was an auto-engineer and that he thought it would be great to have a tech training hub in Inwood—as Rodriguez has long envisioned—so young people could get good-paying jobs, not just work in fast-food restaurants.

A racial dimension?

Congressman Adriano Espaillat seemed to be reflecting on racial dynamics when he made his remarks. He began, like Rodriguez did, by emphasizing the area’s dire need for affordable housing, how doing nothing “is not an option,” and how he wanted housing options for the moderate-income teacher, the low-income married cab driver and home attendant as well as the extremely low-income single mom.

“We lost the west side unfortunately, but it’s the reality,” he said—a reference to what all Inwooders know: that the west side of the neighborhood is whiter and more high-income than the rest of the neighborhood. He said he wanted to hold another forum for the people who he said were not at Thursday’s hearing—the people on the East Side, “who live on Nagles Avenue, Post Avenue, Sherman Avenue, the people that are going to be directly impacted by this.” (Later in the evening, however, some Latina women who were critics of the plan waived their hands and said ‘Latinos are here!’ as if to counter this idea.)

But he went on to explain that he was also very concerned about an influx of luxury housing, would prefer that the upzoning affect only the area east of Nagle Avenue, and wanted the city to commit to more units of affordable housing upfront. He said getting a new day-care through the library redevelopment seemed to him like a good idea, though a temporary library would be needed. When someone began to heckle him, he insisted on respect, and then described the respect between people of different races that he recalled in the neighborhood’s past, such as his friendship with Irish neighbors who taught him and his brother how to navigate the city.

“We got to respect each other. We can’t continue with this vitriolic language of those people and these people. That’s not good for this neighborhood…If we continue to anonymously hurt each other with words and language that—I grew up in this city, I know language, I know code words, I’m a man of color, a young man of color that was raised in the city of New York, so you’re not going to pull that one over me, but we must come together,” he said.

Any effort to come together broke down immediately when State Senator Marisol Alcantara came up to the mic. She too expressed support for some kind of rezoning and a need for real affordable housing and not luxury housing, but it was her first remark—though it was somewhat unclearly phrased—that infuriated many members of the crowd.

“I seen the e-mails in the Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale, telling us they want to play good cops bad cops, they also have said places, they’re coons, these people they need to go back where they’re from, it’s really a shame, this it is not a lie, this is the city of New York which alleges to be the most progressive city in New York, and when you address the immigrant community as these people, and that they need to go back where they’re from, and this is a routine, you need to be ashamed of yourself,” Alcantara said, provoking a loud uproar of protest.

Members of Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale coalition, which includes groups like Metropolitan Council on Housing, Faith in New York and local groups, believed themselves the victims of libel and repeatedly refuted Alcantara’s accusations through the course of the night.

There were some others that testified in favor of the plan. A second engineer also insisted that it was crucial for Inwood residents to participate in the tech economy and called for a tech college and technology hub. Members of 32BJ said they were in favor of a plan that included good union jobs for building service workers. A professor with an expertise in housing described the plan as a truly concerted effort by government to use both zoning and investments to create affordable housing. The chief operations officer at Twin Donut, who told City Limits he wanted to live in Inwood but it was too expensive, testified that it was unfair for critics to deride the lack of affordable housing and then complain about population overcrowding, arguing that you need an increase in supply to reduce rents and give people a chance to leave abusive landlords. He also thought there were design solutions to get around concerns about construction impacts or potential future flooding.

“I’m 100 percent in favor of affordable housing and the waterfront view,” said a Spanish tenant through a translator. “I’m here because there are a lot of families that are living altogether with five, six, seven people in the same apartment, all living in apartments, one or two or three bedrooms. This about affordable housing will let people be able to move in next to their family members and have a place they need themselves, at the same time giving support to the people that stayed behind, like parents.”

A menu of worries

But the vast majority of those who attended the hearing expressed deep concerns about the plan. Many argued rezoning would greatly exacerbate existing gentrification by resulting in an influx of mostly luxury housing. Nova Lucero, an organizer with Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale, said she’d heard that landlords were already telling their tenants that the rezoning would be a game-changer. There were multiple calls for a thorough analysis of displacement that considers the potential impact on people living in rent-stabilized buildings, especially those with preferential rents.

The city’s environmental review method currently considers rent stabilized tenants immune to displacement. That assumption is disputed in many rezoning neighborhoods, but it’s particularly urgent in Inwood. In 2011, 87 percent of units in the Inwood/Washington Heights community were rent stabilized or controlled—by far the highest percentage in the city, of which a whopping number have preferential rents.

Others said mom and-pop businesses are already being bought out by chain stores and many fear the rezoning would worsen that trend. A worker speaking on behalf of nightclubs on 10th Avenue said they worried the rezoning would displace that sector as well as the wholesalers east of 10th avenue that other businesses depend upon. Borough President Gale Brewer was among those who spoke about a need for a thorough assessment of both residential and business displacement.

“I do not doubt that the current proposal will directly displace businesses that have been operating here for years, and many local businesses depend on other local businesses, so I want us to be proactive: What can we do to really mitigate any dislocation and ensure a range of businesses going forward?” she asked.

Many were upset that there wasn’t a concrete plan for a temporary library (though the city says the New York Public Library is committed to opening one). There were also concerns about the impact of the rezoning on the already overcrowded and deteriorating public transportation system, as well as on shadows, the electric grid, school overcrowding, traffic, and more. There were calls for more parks investments—one person said the $30 million gift to Highbridge Park in Washington Height was too far away from Inwood to count—and for more areas to be contextually rezoned to R7A. Two scientists from the community were concerned that the city was underestimating the flood damage that might occur. Several people insisted that the city’s Environmental Impact Statement ought to pass through a peer review process.

Francesca Castellanos, another of Rodriguez’s challengers in Tuesday’s primary, shouted, “You are a liar, Ydanis, because there have been 10 proposals that have been in the City Council for tenant harassment and not even one you have sponsored.” (In fact, Rodriguez was a sponsor of eleven of the eighteen tenant harassment bills that were passed into law in August.)

Rodriguez did seem to listen closely, and nod thoughtfully, while one resident commended his vision for a state-of-the-art of the art library and asked, respectfully, “Wouldn’t it be possible to find another location for this wonderful idea that you have?”

A few people echoed Espaillat’s call for a more limited rezoning, among them a representative from the Municipal Art Society who thought the upzoning should be concentrated to the area west of 10th avenue—as Rodriguez himself had originally imagined, the MAS rep pointed out—and Amalie Brewer, a resident who described herself as a member of the creative class industry but who desired to cohabitate with service sector workers and STEM workers.

Uncertainty remains

A big unanswered question, beyond whether the plan will further increase market pressures, seems to be whether the plan will truly help those service sector workers become STEM workers and creative class industry workers, and thereby able to afford the growing rents in Inwood.

There was also Shahabuddeen Ally, chair of community board 12, who urged those present to attend community board meetings this fall to provide the board with constructive feedback before the fast-moving clock for approval begins.

“We need that data because once this application comes before us, we don’t know if we’re going to make the right decision—who knows what the right decision is—but we need to make sure we make an informed decision,” he said.

In a statement sent to City Limits, the EDC wrote, “We appreciate the ideas and suggestions offered at the public scoping hearing. The input we received will help inform the City’s environmental analysis throughout the coming months. We look forward to continuing this conversation with Community Board 12, elected officials, residents and stakeholders in order to inform a plan that will preserve Inwood’s character while creating affordable housing, jobs, and waterfront access.”

The comment deadline has been extended to Friday, September 29, at 5 p.m. Comments can be sent to the Mayor’s Office of Environmental Coordination, Esther Brunner, Deputy Director, 253 Broadway, 14th Floor, New York, NY 10007, or e-mailed to ebrunner@cityhall.nyc.gov.