After a summer morning rain, dewy petrichor and the strong scent of homemade cafe con leche lingers in the air around Dyckman Street in Inwood. Near the A train station, a shop owner with coffee cup in hand yawns a little before opening his shutters. He’s next to a new juice and smoothie shop. A little further down the street are signs that a double chain restaurant–a Burger King and a Popeyes–is on its way. In the afternoon, teenagers appear on their apartment buildings’ steps and older men have come out of the barbershops to soak in the sun after the Rain.
A little over a year ago, on August 8, the City Council approved the de Blasio administration’s Inwood rezoning—the latest installment of the city’s plan to improve housing affordability through altering zoning rules in neighborhoods across the boroughs. The changes in Inwood followed rezonings in East New York, Downtown Far Rockaway, East Harlem and Jerome Avenue. It was among the most contentious. There were dozens of protests, some arrests and even a brief occupation of the local councilmember’s office.
At the time of the Council’s action, Inwood was one of the last affordable neighborhoods in Manhattan. According to data from the Furman Center, in 2017 Manhattan’s Community Board 12, which represents Washington Heights and Inwood, had an average advertised rent of $2,090 compared to $3,150 across Manhattan and $2,800 citywide.
Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale, a coalition of community groups and Inwood residents who were against the rezoning, feared the rezoning would attract market-rate housing and further gentrify their community. The local councilmember, Ydanis Rodriguez, who spearheaded the rezoning, felt it was a way to secure tenant protection programs and bring in an estimated $500 million worth of investments.
As the scene on the recent rainy morning indicated, Inwood’s rhythms and feel seem unchanged a year after the rezoning. But physical changes are underway, with more to come.
Multiple building sites are active
According to Department of Building records and the YIMBY website , since the approval of the rezoning, permits have been filed for a seven-story apartment building at 112 Seaman Avenue between West 204th Street and Payson Avenue and another seven-story residential building is slated for 140 Hillside Avenue near Sickles Street. A couple of weeks after the rezoning was approved last year, permits were also filed for a 30-story mixed-use commercial and residential building on the waterfront property 3875 9th Avenue, which is slated to create 614 units with 25 percent of them set aside as affordable housing, as well as commercial and/or retail space.
Adjacent to Fort Tryon Park, 4650 Broadway, which has been had many uses from a dealership to a parking garage, is slated for a mixed-use residential development with 272 residential units, 30 percent of which will be designated as affordable housing units, and over 180,000 square feet of community facilities and commercial retail space.*
As part of the rezoning deal, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) committed to creating affordable housing developments on city-owned sites as well as the Inwood Library. On the Inwood Library site (4790 Broadway) construction is slated to begin next year for a 17-story residential and commercial building. The top 14 floors will accommodate 175 affordable units while the bottom three floors will house a community center, pre-kindergarten space and the new library.
The 175 units, known as the Eliza Apartments, will be 100 percent permanently affordable to households with incomes at or below 60 percent of AMI (currently $57,660 for a family of three) using the Extremely Low and Low-Income Affordability (ELLA) program, which serves families with income between $20,040 and $40,080 for individuals and $34,360 and $51,540 for a household of three. Over 20 percent of all apartments will be affordable to a family of three earning less than $26,000 and some will be reserved for formerly homeless households. The city designated a development team of Community League of the Heights (CLOTH), the Children’s Village, Ranger Properties and Alembic Community Development to construct and operate the new building.
The new branch is expected to open in 2022. The Inwood Library has plans to temporarily relocate to a 1,700-square-foot space right across the street at 4857 Broadway, according to a New York Public Library spokesperson. “This site will give us the flexibility to offer holds and pick ups, reader’s advisory, reference services, wi-fi access, and computer access,” says Danita Nichols, the Inwood Library Manager, in an email. “It also, perhaps most importantly, keeps members of the Inwood Library team in the community, allowing us to better respond to neighborhood needs and continue to build partnerships.”
In an interview with City Limits, Nichols says most of the library programs–such as Table Tech, tech for seniors, storytime, book discussion, Perfect for Play STEM and the arts programs–would be immediately available once the the library relocates across the street. But other programs’ accessibility will depend on the partnerships the library creates with local organizations. The Inwood Library is currently in talks with community organizations and will share additional details in the coming months. There will be additional mobile library services available outside the relocation space.
What the city promised
The $500 million rezoning plan is slated to facilitate 2,600 new affordable housing units and preserve and protect another 2,500 existing affordable homes. The mandatory inclusionary housing (MIH) program will give developers the choice between devoting 25 percent of units to rents affordable to households making 60 percent of the area median income ($57,660 for a household of three persons) or setting aside 20 percent of units to be affordable to those making 40 percent area median income ($38,440 for a household of three persons).
The plan included affordable housing preservation efforts like offering loans and tax incentives to building owners, implementing programs that help property owners to make repairs and facilitating the “Landlord Ambassador” initiative that provides technical assistance to landlords to navigate HPD financing processes.
Additional preservation programs include the “Neighborhood Pillars” program, where financing is provided for nonprofits to acquire and rehabilitate rent-regulated buildings; “Partners in Preservation,” which is an anti-displacement strategy; and the “Certificate of No Harassment” pilot program that bars landlords with histories of harassment from getting building permits. HPD says it will also create a tenant anti-harassment unit to investigate construction and maintenance harassment by bad-acting landlords, conduct outreach for the NYC Rent Freeze program for Inwood tenants and open a base office for a nonprofit that provides homeless services
The New York City Economic Development Corporation, which quarterbacked the rezoning of the northern Manhattan neighborhood, says the city is meeting its promises.
An estimated $500,000 was allocated through the Inwood rezoning to support housing programs in the neighborhood, such as Partners in Preservation. According to the NYCEDC, the Tenant Support Unit conducted outreach to Inwood residents with information about anti-displacement resources, and has knocked on more than 30,000 doors, made over 14,000 calls, and assisted over 2,500 New Yorkers within zip code 10034.
Additionally, Services for the UnderServed, a nonprofit that offers homeless services, has opened an office in Washington Heights to assist residents of Northern Manhattan who are at risk of homelessness, according to the city.
Some of the neighborhood projects promised in the rezoning agreement have already been completed, including an estimated $400,000 reconstruction of the Dyckman Green Gym at Inwood Hill Park, as well as $65,000 in upgrades at Wallenberg Playground and the 175th Street Recreation Area, according to the NYCEDC.
Other projects are in the works. The $30 million construction on Highbridge Park, which includes upgrades to Adventure Playground and Sunken Playground, pathway lighting to the historic High Bridge, and a new synthetic turf practice field in the southern part of the park, has begun. The city will complete designs for renovations to Anne Loftus Playground this summer, and has started designs for the renovation of Monsignor Kett Playground on West 204th Street between Nagle and Tenth avenues, which will include basketball courts, a fitness area and new bathroom facilities. Both sites are getting more than $18 million in renovations. And reconstruction of the historic Highbridge Water Tower will start next month, at an expected cost of between $3-5 million.
The city will also release a request for expressions of interest in the coming months for arts and cultural organizations interested in operating the planned Immigrant Research and Performing Arts Center, one of Rodriguez’s demands as the rezoning decision loomed last summer. The project will receive an estimated $15 million in capital funding, which includes $75,000 for capacity building training for selected arts and cultural organizations, and up to $75,000 per year in energy assistance for operating the facility.
Funding has been allocated for work-training and business-related initiatives as well, including training programs for things like entry-level web development, bilingual commercial driver’s licenses, a preparation course for internationally trained nurses and bilingual medical assistant training. Some of those programs, such as a nine-week course which will “develop the basic technical and professional skills needed to gain admission to occupational training in web development” have started at the Washington Heights Workforce 1 Career Center at 181st Street according to the city’s rezoning tracker.
The city’s Department of Small Business Services continues to reach out to small businesses in Inwood, and provide support services including commercial lease assistance, financing, business education, and funding through the city’s Neighborhood 360 program, according to city officials.
HPD has not yet released the Request For Proposal (RFP) for the project at NYCHA’s Dyckman Houses involving the development of an estimated 180 to 250 units of 100 percent affordable housing, and space for community services. It also has yet to issue the RFP for turning the DOT bridge repair facility at West 206th Street into affordable housing.
There has been no information on when the city will move the sanitation garage at West 215th Street and 10th Avenue to facilitate the creation of affordable housing. At the time of the agreement, the city had said once the garage was relocated to the Brookdale site in Kips Bay (25-26th Streets, between First Avenue and the FDR Drive) then the city could start planning for affordable housing development project on that site.
One neighborhood, many views
For some members of Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale and other Inwood residents and business owners, the protests during the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (better known as ULURP) did not end at the Inwood rezoning approval.
Last year, Inwood Legal Action and a coalition of community groups and residents, filed a lawsuit challenging the approval of the rezoning plan, and contended the process the city used to conduct it was incomplete. The suit was brought under Article 78 , a state law that allows for legal challenges to the “actions of administrative agencies and other government bodies.”
In this case, the suit argues the city’s environmental review process failed to examine how the rezoning would impact the demographics of the Inwood community, including race, income and language.
The lawsuit says the city’s environmental impact study missed important factors, such as the impact the rezoning would have on preferential rent leases, racial displacement, and minority-and women-owned businesses. The lawsuit also alleges the study failed to take into account the impact of other prior city rezonings, and the effect of the temporary loss of Inwood’s library. A Manhattan Supreme Court judge is expected to issue a decision in the coming months.
Last year, Community Board 12 voted against the rezoning with recommendations. New Community Board 12 Chair Richard Lewis says the lawsuit is just one item on the list of issues the board is monitoring. “We have a full plate,” he says.
He says the lawsuit could have a chance since there are cases with similar concerns such as the case against a large-scale development in Two Bridges, where the judge sided with the community, and in Bushwick, where community groups are pushing for a fair and equitable rezoning. Both groups have raised concerns over the city’s method for the environmental review.
Lewis says in the coming months the community board will form a rezoning committee, which will be tasked with monitoring the city’s rezoning commitments. The committee will also be tasked with monitoring reports of excessive evictions, the outcome of the lawsuit and how small businesses perform in the community.
Small business concerns
Small business owner Ivan Yeung, a petitioner in the lawsuit who has operated U Like Chinese Take Out on the corner of Broadway and 207th Street for 14 years, says his taxes have almost doubled in the last few years. “The most impact I have felt financially has been this year,” says Yeung, whose commercial lease will end in six years.
Yeung says his property taxes have jumped from an estimated $12,000 to almost $20,000 over the last five years. Small businesses generally pay the property taxes as part of their lease agreement with the property owner. Yeung says he had another business so he could take the expense for now but not all neighboring small business could take the same risk.
“I am part of the lawsuit for them. Some of my small business neighbors do not want to be involved because they feel the landlord might harass them and the city does not have protections in place for them,” says Yeung.
Councilmember Rodriguez says the extensive state rent reforms package passed in June paired with the capital investments from the rezoning will help Inwood residents and small business owners in the long run. He says his rezoning was the first to include a commitment to help small businesses extend their leases and include affordable commercial space in affordable development projects.
But he also says that he believes in the right for communities to speak up against rezoning.
“A rezoning is the whole process and therefore a no rezoning is perfect, We need to understand that residents of the different communities that are speaking loud and clear on the rezoning. It is their right to do so. I do believe that at the end of the day, community engagement from all sides is the best path. In this process, what we’re trying to do is to bring the necessary investments that will allow members of the northern Manhattan community to get the best resources for programs that are important or related to housing, education, creating new jobs in a community,” says Rodriguez, who is serving his last term in the City Council. “For decades, [Inwood] has not received new affordable housing in a society where we have have market-rate housing and number of landlords that unfortunately, have been using bad tactics to push tenants out. And that is equal to or translates into a community that unfortunately pushes out working class out. And that’s what we are trying to avoid, here.”
Rodriguez, who started as a community organizer, says he has watched his district’s infrastructure deteriorate since the 80s. He says the goal of the rezoning was to get those capital investments back into the community. “In my vision it, I do believe that economic development that we can bring to our community should be around technology and a Latino food destination,” he says.
Despite the Popeye’s and Burger King chain slated to open soon on Dyckman Street, Rodriguez says the rezoning was not there to create conditions for franchises—in fact, he says, a chief rezoning goal was small business preservation, “We want the small mom and pop businesses to be preserved and thrive in our community,” he says. “We were the first rezoning to include as part of the agreement that a percentage of the commercial space built by the developer will get subsidies for affordable spaces for small businesses.”
The Inwood Legal Action group was formed on behalf of its primary petitioners the coalition Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale, Inwood small business owners and residents. The group members say the city’s and Rodriguez’s promises were not responsive to the needs of the community.
The group argues the promise for 5,000 new affordable units on public and private sites was far-fetched because the city could not guarantee that units that depend on private investment would be built. And they say income targets for that housing fall fall short of addressing needs in Inwood. The skeptics also question the lack of new school seats, the possible impact of the new federal Opportunity Zone program and the robustness of efforts to protect independent small businesses.
“The change is not going to happen in an instant. This will take a decade. The changes have been slow and steady. I have not seen any improvements in our parks but I have seen some construction,” says Cheryl Pahaham, a Northern Manhattan Is Not Sale member and Inwood Legal Action co-chair. “We have heard landlords refusing to replace gas pipes and then Con Edison turns off the gas. That’s harassment. These behaviors are incentivized by the rezoning which the city facilitated.”
* Correction: The original version of this article erroneously indicated this site only contained a parking lot.