Less than two weeks before the City Council vote on the Inwood rezoning proposal, Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez is negotiating the last pieces of the plan with the de Blasio administration.
Earlier this month, over a hundred Inwood residents, elected officials, stakeholders and city agencies expressed their opposition or support for the rezoning proposal during the City Council public hearing while City Council subcommittee on zoning and franchises chairman and Councilman Francisco Moya and Councilman Rodriguez listened on.
The NYC Economic Development Corporation’s proposal, shepherded by Rodriguez, is the fifth neighborhood rezoning sponsored by the de Blasio administration to move through the ULURP process by which a rezoning is approved, amended or rejected. The City Planning Commission voted in favor of the city’s Inwood rezoning proposal in June. The final step in the ULURP process is the vote by the City Council.
The rezoning proposal has taken shape over the last three years but it has been in the works for much longer, according to Rodriguez.
In 2011, a city study of Sherman Creek—an area in Inwood—was part a larger plan led by Mayor Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn for a long-term sustainable blueprint for New York City’s 520 waterfront and waterways. That blueprint, produced in partnership with NYCEDC, included long-term goals for the next decade and set 130 priority projects to be implemented within three years.
Rodriguez said the waterfront development plan did not include any rezoning efforts for the Inwood area. Conditions in some buildings were deteriorating badly: After a January 2011 blizzard, at one local building, “The ceiling had almost collapsed and the tenants had to be relocated for two years. A city inspection at the site revealed over 1,000 code violations on 72 units. According to the city records, residents including seniors were living without gas, water or heat in their apartments. Rodriguez said fighting to redevelop that building—”I got $25-28 million to build a new building, 100 percent affordable,” he recalled—paved the way to a rezoning.
Rodriguez said his push for rezoning Inwood became even more harder after Mayor de Blasio became into office.
“Then when the mayor got elected, I met with the mayor and we started this process of community engagement to hear from the community. That started three years ago,” he said. “We got some community meetings, we met with different sectors, with tenants, with local small businesses, with community-based organizations. We opened the meetings to anyone.”
A neighborhood study and framework was eventually followed by the NYCEDC rezoning proposal. “I have been clear that my vision will focus on economic development around technology, health, and I want to make it a Latino food destination. Those are my three visions for economic development,” he said.
“My plan, my vision, is to bring development to Inwood and Washington Heights that focuses on building affordable housing, home preservation but to also understand that we have to be there for the mom-and-pop stores. So that is how we started this conversation by presenting those ideas on Inwood and presenting our 2030 year plan for Inwood,” he said. “Making it home for people living there for decades especially working class New Yorkers who should get apartments based on the local median income — which in our community is $36,000 — but also to build apartments for other income brackets.”
The rezoning would include an increase in residential density on West 207th Street, Dyckman Street and Broadway. In all upzoned areas, the city would institute mandatory inclusionary housing, which requires that a portion of the units be rent-restricted. Additionally, the surrounding residential area roughly from Thayer Street to West 218 Street would be “contextually rezoned”—subjected to height limits and other restrictions to preserve the neighborhood character. Areas where Con Edison facilities are located and the tip of Manhattan, where the city intends to encourage job-focused development, will be designated as industrial. Other components of the proposal range from various land use actions, improving waterfront access and the redevelopment of Inwood library with over 100 units of income-targeted housing above the new library and a Pre-K program. The city’s new certificate of no harassment program will also be applied to protect Inwood tenants.
Much of the discussion about the rezoning focuses on the Commercial “U,” which comprises the blocks along Dyckman Street between approximately Nagle Avenue and Broadway, Broadway between Thayer and West 207th Streets, and West 207th Street between Broadway and Tenth Avenue. The area is generally characterized by one- to two-story commercial and community facility uses, with some multi-story housing with ground floor retail and other commercial uses. The NYCEDC proposal recommends that the area be upzoned to add more density and argued that the current zoning in the area did not have a any restrictions.
According to city estimates, the zoning changes writ large could lead to the development of 4,348 units of housing, 472,685 square feet of community facility space, 1,135,032 square feet of commercial space, and a decrease of 50,614 square feet of light industrial space.
Earlier in the year, the city released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement detailing the potential impacts of the Inwood rezoning. According to the DEIS, there will be no “direct residential displacement,” or resident displacement due to demolition and redevelopment.The city identified 33 sites most likely to be redeveloped and says none of these sites contain apartments. Those sites contain 26 businesses providing jobs for 271 workers in the fields of food service, health care, transportation, and warehousing and accounting for three percent of total employment in the half-mile area, including two large supermarkets could be affected by “indirect displacement.”
The EIS did not detect a potential for significant “indirect” residential displacement caused by a changing market and rising rents. It noted that 83 percent of the rental housing in the area is rent-regulated or subsidized. The EIS did acknowledge impacts on library services, open space, shadows, historic and cultural resources, traffic, pedestrian movement, transit, construction.
When asked if he accepted the EIS’s low estimates of potential displacement, Rodriguez said, “I believe that it is not necessarily 100 percent accurate based on what is the reality of our community. However it produces some information that is valid. They did the work and they took the time to do the research, they put the findings on the table.”
In February, Inwood community groups—including Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale, Inwood Preservation, Inwood Small Business Coalition and Save Inwood Library—and residents proposed their own plan, the Uptown United Platform, to address what they see as flaws in the rezoning proposal. The community proposal focused on more affordable housing, protecting small business, anti-gentrification efforts, and traffic congestion; it also proposed a separate land-use review process for the library.
The Uptown United platform members said they had met with Rodriguez a few times over the last couple of months to discuss the rezoning proposals in hopes of seeing some their proposed ideas come to fruition.
“We looked again at the points he released last week, and still there is no concrete response to the changes we sought to the plan. Nothing that even has to do with the rezoning itself, let alone our demands. In short, there is nothing of substance that would sway us, the community,” said Nova Lucero, community organizer with Met Housing Council and Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale. “There are no offers to scale back the rezoning and no new information about deeper levels of affordability or increased percentages.”
Manhattan Community Board 12 and Borough President Gale Brewer have said no to the current plan while calling for changes.
Rodriguez said he understood the Inwood community’s concerns about displacement caused by rezoning. He says his belief is that rezoning is not the only cause of displacement — he also places the blame on bad housing policies that have been implemented for decades.
“It is important to make the connection with history about what happened in the past and we did not get here overnight. We are not closing business because of the rezoning, tenants are not being pushed out because of the rezoning. We have been losing tenants for the last 15 years because we have bad policy when it comes to protecting our tenants,” Rodriguez said.
Another concern raised about the rezoning is whether the area’s infrastructure is robust enough to absorb thousands of additional residents. Rodriguez said there are two phases to the rezoning plan and he believes there is enough time in between each phase to improve the infrastructure. In the first phase of the plan three residential sites will be developed along with the library building site. According to Rodriguez, there are plans to improve transit in the area including upgrades to the A train signal system; adding ADA compliant improvements to the 207th Street subway station; changing the M12 Select Bus Service to Bus Rapid Transit; improvements to the University Heights Bridge from 207th street that leads into the Bronx and connecting Inwood to additional subway train routes such as the 4, 2 and D trains as well as the Metro North in the Bronx.
Rodriguez also added that the waterfront access highlighted in the plan will be public and he plans on allocating $5 million to $7 million to build a new pier near La Marina for recreation, as well as to improve access for farmers from Hudson Valley to come with fresh produce for markets in the park.
“I feel that the infrastructure needs to get immediate investment to be upgraded for the first couple of hundred of residents for the first few sites that are included in the rezoning,” he said.
Rodriguez would not specify which parts of the rezoning were still being negotiated with the city but said he was looking at all options—especially those pertaining to the Commercial U.
When pressed about why the library residential development did not go through its own ULURP process, Rodriguez said, “Right now, I can only talk about what we have right now. This is a very ambitious, comprehensive proposal.”
Despite there being vocal opposition from the Inwood community and stakeholders, Rodriguez said his experience as a grassroots community organizer allows him to sympathize with the concerns of his constituents.
“I have been involved in civil disobedience and I have been voicing my opinion in many fights. When I see anyone with a lot of energy now voicing their opinion for a good rezoning — I respect them,” Rodriguez said. “At the end of the day, what I can tell my community is that I have been listening to them. They should know that I will only be voting for a rezoning if this rezoning allows a turn for the better for our working class community.”
“I have not done a single rezoning in my nine years at City Council—not because there was no lack of interests or proposal on top of my desk,” he said. Asked about the concerns that previous rezonings, like the Bloomberg administration’s rezoning on Williamsburg, have raised, he added: “I am learning from the previous rezonings to see what didn’t work so that I can avoid it as much as possible and to take the good things from those rezonings and see what I can get out of it.”
“I am clear,” Rodriguez continued, “that I would only do a rezoning if we are able to build a community where [the] working class can live with dignity.”