De Blasio administration staff say the proposed Inwood rezoning comes with a suite of supportive services for small businesses, but some small business owners spoke out against the current proposal and offered alternatives at a community board meeting on Tuesday night.
The Economic Development Corporation (EDC)’s Inwood rezoning plan is currently under consideration by Manhattan Community Board 12—the first stage of the seven-month public review process through which a rezoning is approved or disapproved. The rezoning would enable bigger residential and commercial buildings on several commercial corridors in the neighborhood and the areas east of 10th avenue, with a portion of the new development required to be below-market housing, and also provide building height limits of eight stories for other, more residential parts of the neighborhood. Check out City Limits’ Inwood rezoning newsletter here.
Board chair Shahabuddeen Ally has asked every committee to deliberate the proposal at meetings this month, including the Business Development Committee on Tuesday, the Land Use Committee on Wednesday and the Housing committee this Thursday. A full schedule of all committee meetings can be viewed here.
At Tuesday’s Business Development Committee meeting, representatives from the Department of Small Business Services (SBS) described the programs available to foster economic development and job access in Inwood. These include the city’s new Washington Heights Workforce1 Career Center, which opened in 2016 and is tailored to serve immigrant New Yorkers and provide trainings related to biomedical and web-related fields. There’s also the Washington Heights Business Solutions Center, which provides a range of services and workshops for small businesses, and a new mobile unit that reaches businesses where they’re located.
SBS also relayed the announcement, made earlier that day, that the administration had committed $2.4 million over two years to fund a pro-bono legal service program for small businesses that need help with lease renewal, eviction disputes and other such issues and who cannot afford an attorney. The program will not pay for representation of clients in court, however.
In addition, SBS collaborated with the Washington Heights Business Improvement District (BID) to complete an Inwood Commercial District Needs Assessment and then awarded a $1.1 million three-year grant to the Washington Heights BID that is being used to organize an Inwood business association, improve street sanitation and beautification, provide one-on-one mentorship for business owners, and launch a website called Up in Inwood for better marketing, among other initiatives.
“We are making investments in Inwood … We need your help to get the word out to make sure these services are actually used,” said Charles Samboy, representing EDC.
But many of those present at the meeting appeared unconvinced that these resources would in fact make much difference to small business owners if they were faced with a rezoning. This became especially clear as small business owners stood up to express their point of view, receiving frequent applause from those present in the audience.
Mike Saab, the owner of C-Town on Broadway came to represent the Inwood Small Business Coalition, which he said was formed to ensure small business owners, who often don’t have time to attend planning meetings, still get a voice at the table in the rezoning discussed. He described Inwood’s existing business community as a heaven for small independent businesses where “everyone lived in harmony, everyone flourished” and said the rezoning could change all of that by triggering property redevelopment as well as rising property taxes that leads to higher rents.
“We will have closed storefronts everywhere, waiting to be demolished for years and years” and elected officials who approved such a plan would be “crushing the same people they want to protect,” he said, though he added he wasn’t against any rezoning but rather against this particular plan. He also said that in the rezoning area, commercial landlords are already refusing to issue new leases or issuing only short-term leases or long term leases with clauses that allow the landlord to end the lease early if they wish to redevelop.
Saab said instead of upzoning Dyckman Street, Broadway and West 207th Street to allow for 11-story buildings (and 14 stories on corners) as currently proposed, the city should limit building heights there to eight stories also with commercial businesses allowed on lower floors. He also called for various other measures, including policies to curb landlord harassment and to give business owners the ability to renew their leases, a “right to return” and relocation assistance, and for provisions to limit the size of new commercial spaces so as to prevent an influx of big box stores. View the coalition’s draft plan, which may still evolve, here.
Saab owns property in the neighborhood and was himself the subject of resistance last summer when he proposed an upzoning of his and neighbors’ properties on Seaman Avenue. On Tuesday he addressed this, saying that after talking with community groups he’d decided to redevelop his property at the current zoning and to offer affordable housing units through the use of tax credits and HPD subsidies—evidence, he said, that it was possible to create affordable housing in the neighborhood without a rezoning.
Zulay Mateo, representing Sherman Creek wholesalers, added to this vision, saying that if certain areas of the waterfront east of 10th avenue had to be upzoned, then the city should at least carve out some space to which wholesale businesses can relocate so they and all their employees are not completely displaced. “These are the people who have served the community and they want to stick around when this change occurs,” she said. Two other small business owners also spoke out against the rezoning.
Philip Simpson, a commercial real-estate lawyer who is working with the coalition, complained that the city was dismissive of the detailed comments it received from the public in September. The city’s responses are contained in the final version of the city’s Final Scope of Work, available here. Simpson noted that the public had asked the city to look at the outcomes of other rezonings to see whether its predictions were realistic and to study the potential impact of the rezoning on minority and women-owned businesses, on the quality of jobs that would be lost, and many other things. The Final Scope of Work repeatedly says that such studies are outside the requirements of the city’s environmental review manual or were otherwise not necessary or possible.
Simpson also criticized the language used in the environmental impact statement regarding why the displacement of wholesale, light industrial, automotive and warehousing businesses was not considered “significant.” “They are not of substantial economic value to the city … They are not a defining element of neighborhood character,” states the city’s environmental impact statement for the rezoning, itself using terminology from the city’s environmental review manual.
Asked to respond to Saab’s proposed right to return policy and limits on the sizes of new commercial spaces, EDC’s Adam Meagher said that “a lot of things you recommended sounds like things that could be put forward in a community board proposal,” and he stressed that there were still opportunities for the proposal to evolve as it moved through ULURP. He also added that the proposal would require ground-floor windows and would enable second-floor retail uses.
Community board member Rud Morales also expressed concerns about the city’s outreach to the small business community, a large portion of which are Latino-owned, with another board member arguing that it was “not sufficient that the environmental impact is not translated into Spanish.”
“We also need you to help us to reach those businesses,” said Samboy, expressing a willingness to do more outreach, and he mentioned that Paola Ruiz, who used to work for the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation and therefore bears connections to Inwood, is now working on this proposal for the mayor’s office in her role as Manhattan Borough Director. But Morales was not impressed. “You need to include us. You are the one coming into our neighborhood,” she said.
Jason Compton, who chaired the meeting, was eager to ensure actual small business owners had a chance to speak, but he also said that “sitting here complaining is not going to do anything for us” and emphasized the importance of determining determine concrete solutions that could improve the rezoning proposal. He said the committee was definitely interested in supporting the passage of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act—which, in a presentation earlier that evening, Columbia professor and former public advocate candidate David Eisenbach said had a chance of passing in the current Council—and said the board was also looking at other potential strategies such as providing financial incentives to landlords not to displace commercial tenants, requiring developers who displace businesses to provide a certain amount of jobs, and restricting the size of commercial areas, among others.
The committee will be drafting a document on the rezoning that it will then forward to the full board in March. It remains unclear how strongly the board will condemn the current proposal and how extensive