Abigail Savitch-Lew

Paloma Lara, a supporter of Uptown United, addresses Inwood stakeholders at the rezoning discussion convened on April 29, 2018.

The Inwood rezoning—the fifth neighborhood rezoning sponsored by the de Blasio administration—is exactly halfway through the seven-month public review procedure through which a rezoning is approved or disproved. Manhattan Community Board 12 and Borough President Gale Brewer have each said no to the current plan while calling for certain changes. The City Planning Commission is next to act, followed by the City Council, where Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez—who originally invited the city to launch the rezoning study—will have a strong say in the final, binding decision.

Sunday’s forum, held outside of that formal process of hearings and votes, was convened by Rodriguez in what he characterized as an effort to bring together a variety of groups for a positive discussion on the community’s priorities. Yvonne Stennett, executive director of the nonprofit Community League of the Heights and the facilitator for the evening, began by instructing the audience members, “We are not here today to vote. We’re not here today to criticize. We’re not here to make any voice invaluable.”

Activities that followed included a panel of local organizations identifying community needs, as well as small-group activities where attendees were asked to look at identified community priorities, add any that were missing and rank them by level of importance with circle-stickers. (The community priorities had been taken from overlapping recommendations put forth in the Uptown United alternative plan, by Community Board 12, and by Northern Manhattan Agenda. It was Stanette, Angelina Ramirez of the Washington Heights Business Improvement District (BID), Charlie Corliss of Inwood Community Services, and some other members of the Northern Manhattan Agenda, who had done the work of consolidation.) The small groups’ recommendations will be posted and subject to further comment.

Yet the request for respectful discussion did not deter a momentary outburst of protesting or prevent tensions between participants in the break-out activity. While some stakeholders are more optimistic about the city’s plans, many fear the councilmember will move ahead with a rezoning of a scale they don’t support.

Significant details still in flux

If there’s one thing nearly all stakeholders seem to agree with, it’s that the neighborhood needs an abundance of 100-percent income-targeted buildings. The break-out group focused on housing specifically wanted 100-percent income-targeted buildings with 50 percent of units in such buildings reserved for families making less than $34,000.

Elected officials have also been eager to secure this demand, with Congressman Adriano Espaillat demanding the mayor identify sites for 5,000 affordable apartments. Rodriguez, while he isn’t committing to a 5,000 target, said at a meeting on Thursday that close to 2,000 affordable units were in the pipeline so far. He is actively seeking more.

Brewer told City Limits that the reason she didn’t—in her recommendations on the plan released Friday—heed the call from stakeholders to call for a reduced rezoning and lowered height limits, or to recommend removing the library redevelopment project from the current rezoning application, was because she was hoping to see the rezoning give rise to a number of large, 100-percent affordable buildings.

But even if Rodriguez secures additional 100-percent affordable sites, there are still concerns about how a rezoning will impact land values in the neighborhood and whether an influx of high-priced market-rate housing will follow.

There also remain strong concerns about how the part of the proposed rezoning that would increase density on Dyckman Street, Broadway and 207th Street might impact the small businesses on those corridors. Rodriguez continues to call for the reservation of affordable commercial space in new developments, and Brewer has suggested either scrapping the rezoning of most of those corridors or phasing in the rezoning overtime after other parts of the neighborhood have developed commercial space, a new idea that local activists were still mulling.

Ramirez of the Washington Heights BID, who facilitated the break-out group on economic development, said participants in the activity raised concerns that there are still a lack of sufficient commitments to helping merchants avoid displacement. Some ideas that came up, in addition to the passage of the long-stalled Small Business Jobs Survival Act, included incentive programs for landlords, grants for small businesses and creating a “right of first refusal” to return when buildings are redeveloped within the rezoning area.

Disagreements on who is the “community”

Paloma Lara, who represented supporters of the Uptown United platform on the panel, spoke passionately against the city’s plan, saying that many of the neighborhoods selected for a rezoning have targeted Black and Brown communities (though there are a couple exceptions), and asking rhetorically, “Do we give our control to our councilmember, who met with dozens of property owners earlier this week in a plea for their support for the rezoning?” It was when Lara was told by Stennett that her speaking time was up, and Lara resisted, that the room burst into chanting.

The meeting referenced by Lara was held by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) on Thursday to inform property owners about city funding streams available to build affordable housing. At that meeting, Rodriguez spoke about his vision for creating 100-percent affordable housing as well as economic opportunities to help working-class families join the middle class, and urged property owners to help him achieve this vision. He also explained that “99.9 percent” of people at recent hearings had testified against the rezoning and asked the property owners in the room to show greater support for the rezoning.

“I can’t fight by myself alone—’fight’ meaning making the case that the good that the rezoning can mean for the community,” he told them, as heard in a recording made by a neighborhood activist and reviewed by City Limits. “I don’t pretend that we’ll get the majority saying yes, but if this is important for you as a single property owner… use your resources and make the case, engage the community in that conversation. It cannot be that people are sitting to see if the rezoning will happen or not, expecting that it will, because it will be a tremendous value to the property…Everyone knows that if you own a property, and the rezoning is done, and a six floor at a corner of Dyckman and Broadway can be turned fourteen floor, you will go with your value.”

Asked about this meeting, Rodriguez told City Limits on Sunday that he believed it was important to hear from a variety of stakeholders. “I’ve been meeting with all sectors of our community. I’ve been meeting with the nonprofit sector, I’ve been meeting with tenants…I will only do a rezoning when I know how anyone who owns property will be partner to building affordable housing,” and his other goals, he said.

Rodriguez wasn’t the only one to argue that more voices—outside of those who support the Uptown United platform—deserve a chance to weigh in on the discussion. Ana Martinez, a resident, expressed some frustration with the small-group activity, saying that “passionate groups are able to kind of take over” and that she disagreed with those who took an attitude of opposition to the rezoning. “My attitude is, rezoning is coming,” she said, suggesting that rezonings would allow the city to grow and include affordable housing, and that the discussion ought to focus on crafting a plan that avoids “disasters” that have happened in other communities.

But far from feeling they have monopolized the conversation, supporters of Uptown United, especially the group Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale, have been disconcerted by actions that they feel have targeted them, including a mysterious, still unknown group that attended a board meeting wearing shirts that said “N.M. is not 4 Sale doesn’t represent me.” In addition, Chris Nickell, a supporter of the Uptown United plan, claimed that as the chanting was dying down, Rodriguez’s chief of staff whispered in Nickell’s ear ‘we aren’t meeting with you anymore.’

Asked about this claim, Rodriguez told City Limits there would continue to be meetings like Sunday’s forums open to the entire community. He added, however, that he had found the group’s behavior disrespectful.

Fearing the rezoning is inevitable

A couple attendees expressed skepticism to City Limits about the break-out activities, and for Lena Melendez, a supporter of the Uptown United plan, the whole meeting gave her the sense that the rezoning was now an inevitability.

“They’re behaving as if it’s a done deal…going through the motions. It’s an exercise in futility. We’re going to get shat on,” she said, adding that the community was being given no choice but to beg for “concessions” like more parking or investments in the electrical grid.

Rodriguez said in an interview that nothing was a done deal.

“I’m looking at all the options on the table,” he said. “I need choices, I need options to be able to say, ‘can we do a project that is good for the community?’…I will only do a rezoning if a rezoning allows us to build affordable housing, [create] affordable commercial rents, build a tech center in Washington Heights, a cultural center, and also be sure that we can invest in education—and also invest in preservation.”

It was abundantly clear on Sunday that community members do yearn for community centers, youth sports facilities and art performance spaces. Many 32BJ union members turned out to call for a responsible rezoning that will bring good union jobs and affordable housing, though the union also understands community concerns about the risks of exacerbating pressures on rent stabilized housing. Perhaps longtime resident and community organizer Rafael Figuereo put the conundrum most succinctly: “If the rezoning is bringing new space for underprivileged people, then yes,” he said. “But if the rezoning is just building big buildings that no one can afford, we’re in trouble.”

It’s the same quandary that’s come up repeatedly in each of the low-income communities of color that have been targeted for a rezoning. Such neighborhoods and their elected officials have had to make the choice of whether the resources, the job opportunities, and the affordable apartments they so desperately need are worth opening themselves up to the whims of the real-estate market, even when the risks of displacement remain poorly understood and improperly studied—and when many newly minted anti-displacement strategies remain untested. This is the perpetual choice, one could say, that is offered up by a free-market economy, especially when under a federal government hostile to the poor. Still, it remains unclear whether the city is doing all it can within the limitations of the era to ensure the most vulnerable are spared harm. Are affluent New Yorkers playing enough of a role in meeting the city’s housing needs? Are alternatives to the current approach to housing development being given a real chance to come to fruition?

The City Planning Commission will hold a hearing on the Inwood rezoning on May 9, 2018 starting at 10 am at the City Planning Commission Hearing Room, Lower Concourse, 120 Broadway.