Inwood residents and stakeholders flooded a Manhattan Community Board 12 public hearing on the city’s proposed Inwood rezoning Thursday night, packing a school auditorium built to accommodate roughly 600 people. About 150 people signed up to speak and not everyone had a chance to testify before the hearing ended after almost four hours.
The vast majority of those who testified spoke against the rezoning and many called for the implementation of an alternative plan created by community groups called the Uptown United Platform, which proposes a more modest rezoning and other recommendations. There were also a minority who said the community was overlooking the local and citywide benefits of the city’s plan or giving the Economic Development Corporation too little credit for its efforts.
The rezoning plan proposed by the Economic Development Corporation would allow increased residential and commercial development in Inwood while requiring a portion of the new housing to be income-targeted under the city’s mandatory inclusionary housing policy. It would also “contextually rezone”—rezone to protect the existing character, with height limits—several residential areas of the neighborhood. The study took off in 2015 at the urging of local Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, and is now the fifth neighborhood rezoning sponsored by the de Blasio administration under the mayor’s affordable housing plan to move through the public review process known as “ULURP” through which a rezoning is approved or disproved.
Agency staff, elected officials acknowledge concerns
At the hearing, EDC’s Rebecca Gafvert said the rezoning proposal responded to a number of local goals, like creating access to the waterfront and producing income-targeted housing. She emphasized that the city was proposing not just a rezoning but a set of comprehensive investments in the neighborhood, including 100 percent income-targeted housing and a new library on the site of the current Inwood library, initiatives to connect Inwood residents with jobs, support for small businesses and more. She also stressed that EDC remained open to feedback: “We know this is not perfect and we want to hear your ideas about how this could be improved.”
Rodriguez (whose approach to the mic was greeted with applause, hisses, and someone shouting “sell out!”) emphasized his awareness of the community’s concerns about displacement. “Gentrification is real in our city,” he said. “A lot of people are being priced out. Thousands and thousands of people live [with] preferential rents.”
He said it did make sense to be concerned about the impacts of a rezoning, but that he hoped the community would work with him to discuss specific questions, such as how high new buildings should be, whether the character of West 207th and Dyckman Streets should be maintained, where would the temporary library be and what services would be offered there. Taking a more deferential tone than at a prior hearing in September, he emphasized his respect for community organizing and his own roots as an organizer, and said that he had only approved one rezoning in his eight years as councilmember. Of the current proposal, he added: “It’s not perfect yet, a lot of things have to be discussed… I will be listening to your feedback for now.”
Congressman Adriano Espaillat, according to his testimony read by a representative, wants the mayor to commit upfront to more income-targeted housing in Inwood—5,000 new units of affordable housing, including 1,000 units of senior housing—and a reduction of the rezoning geography to the Sherman Creek area east of 10th avenue. (His stances on the contextual rezoning proposed for west of 10th avenue and on upzoning the northern tip of the island were not clear to City Limits by press time.) (See “Update” below)
The city’s environmental impact statement predicts that the rezoning will lead to the creation of 4,348 apartments including 1,325 to 1,563 income-targeted ones, with more income-targeted housing possible through the use of city subsidy. Later, one critic suggested Espaillat was calling for a massive upzoning in order to get additional affordable housing, but it’s more likely Espaillat was asking for the city to commit subsidies to create more affordable housing in the area.
A representative for Marisol Alcántara also criticized the rezoning, though that testimony was met with some heckling due to Alcántara’s membership in the Independent Democratic Conference.
Vast array of issues raised
Opponents, carrying signs that said “Vote No” and “Support Uptown United Plan,” emphasized how deeply they loved the working-class, multicultural neighborhood in its current form and worried that an influx of market-rate housing triggered by a rezoning would exacerbate gentrification in the neighborhood, increasing displacement pressures on residents and small businesses.
“It’s not a high-end community with big box stores and high rents, and we like it like that,” said the owner of Plum, a small business on Dyckman Street. A longtime neighborhood educator took issue with the mandatory inclusionary housing policy’s definition of affordability:”Affordable housing to me means affordable to everyone, which means people who are earning minimum wage should be able to live in decent new housing.” Angela Fernandez, the executive director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights said there remain questions about how the rezoning will impact the immigrant community her organization serves.
There were concerns raised about the plan’s potential to stress local infrastructure—especially the risk that it would exacerbate current school overcrowding—its potential to deprive the neighborhood of sky views, and other concerns. A representative for the wholesale businesses east of 10th Avenue called on the city to revise the plan to include a designated area to which the wholesalers could relocate. Some called on the city to look at other sites for 100 percent affordable housing development, including the Safety City lot in Washington Heights, empty lots on Broadway, other city-owned sites, and properties that now belong to Con Edison.
Many also spoke passionately against the inclusion of the Inwood library redevelopment project in the same ULURP application as the Inwood rezoning, saying the combination would result in a rushed process, and that even a temporary decommissioning of the library would have an impact on the neighborhood’s youth. Some expressed skepticism that the “state of the art library” proposed would actually serve the community any better than the award-winning existing one.
Robert Joseph from the Municipal Art Society said his organization was “encouraged” by recommendations for affordable housing at the Inwood library site as well as EDC’s efforts to support tenants’ rights and address other neighborhood needs. “While the time is ripe for a comprehensive rezoning to frame Inwood’s future, growth must be balanced with equitable protections for the community and the many elements that make it a special place,” his written testimony stated, while going on to express a number of concerns with the current proposal and environmental impact analysis.
Those from the neighborhood who spoke were old and young, Spanish and English-speaking, and multiracial. A large share were white, though Inwood is 80 percent Latino and Black. Some have alleged that opposition to the plan evidenced racism on the part of white residents against Rodriguez, a notion floated during an earlier hearing. But on Thursday, rezoning critic Josmar Rojas testified, “I’m here as proof that this is a lie.”
A few point to plan’s merits, EDC’s efforts
Peter Psathsas, whose family owns a property on Broadway, argued that the housing crisis exists because the city constricts the overall housing supply in the city, driving up demand for apartments and increasing rents.
Another Inwood resident Phil Betheil, who is also a planner for a private firm, looked at both sides. “Affordability is certainly a citywide problem. Inwood will have to contribute to that. We can’t just keep our neighborhood in amber while other neighborhoods in the city grow and accept additional population growth,” he said, but added that he’d like to see the city’s mandatory inclusionary housing policy be more “responsive to the neighborhood median income.” He also said he supported the idea of housing at the library site but did agree with critics that it should go through its own public review process.
It’s been so far unclear how much affordable housing would get built beyond the 20 to 30 percent required by the city’s mandatory inclusionary housing policy, especially given that the Inwood real-estate market is hotter than areas like Jerome Avenue or East New York, where the city felt more comfortable predicting a large quantity of subsidized affordable housing in the near future.
But a representative for the developer Maddd Equities said the firm planned to develop a property, on the east side of 9th Avenue between 207th and 208th streets, with 650 units of completely income-targeted housing. “We owe a great responsibility to preserving the environment and making sure our development is sensitive to our wildlife,” she said. (Meanwhile, 32BJ members said Maddd had not yet committed to providing prevailing-wage jobs and that they’d collected 800 resident signatures that “support responsible development that comes with real affordable housing and good jobs.”)
William Bollinger of JCAL Development Group spoke of a 100 percent affordable housing project he’s building in Harlem. “The same thing has the opportunity to happen here, particularly on the larger tracks, so I think this is a great opportunity.”
“Vote yes for the affordable housing,” said one resident. “We have so many families doubling up … My nieces and nephews, they’re ready to move out. Where are they going to go?” Some audience members heckled her, while others quietly raised their signs.
Charles Corliss, executive director of Inwood Community Services and a participant in Northern Manhattan Agenda, a coalition of advocacy groups launched by Councilmember Rodriguez, argued it was necessary to ensure that existing residents are not displaced and that adequate services are provided to residents, but also said “The EDC people they’re getting beat up a lot tonight … they’re proceeding in good faith. What you want to be able to do, if there’s another plan, merge those plans together, it’s a very good thing. Additionally, Ydanis is acting in good faith, work with him.” Some audience members expressed their disagreement.
Community Board 12’s Land Use committee will vote on the proposed rezoning on Wednesday, March 7, and the full board will take a vote on March 20. Following the board’s non-binding recommendation, Borough President Gale Brewer will also offer a non-binding opinion. Final, binding votes will then be taken by the City Planning Commission and the City Council, with Councilmember Rodriguez in the driver’s seat.
Residents who wish to submit written testimony can do so before March 6 by e-mailing Community Board 12’s District Manager Ebenezer Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mailing 530 West 166th Street Suite 6A, New York, NY 10032.
Update: Following publication, Congressman Espaillat clarified to City Limits that he’d like to see the mayor invest in the creation of 5,000 affordable units across Washington Heights and Inwood, and that he has identified sites across the two neighborhoods where this construction could happen. He also does not want to see a uniform upzoning of Dyckman, West 207 Street and Broadway (called the “Commercial U” in the city’s plan) though there are specific lots on those streets he thinks may be appropriate for affordable housing development.