Sadef Kully

Community groups rallied outside civil court in August, following oral arguments in a lawsuit challenging the city’s rezoning of Inwood.

A New York Supreme Civil Court judge on Thursday annulled the city’s 2018 Inwood rezoning, siding with a lawsuit alleging the city did not address community concerns or do due diligence during the environmental review process. 

The ruling is a potentially significant legal setback for the de Blasio administration as it moves into its final two years with at least three major potential rezonings on the docket. In one of the neighborhoods facing a potential rezoning, Bushwick, local stakeholders this week demanded a broadened environmental review.

The de Blasio administration signalled it would appeal.

The Inwood rezoning was approved by the City Council last August, and is slated to bring residential and commercial development eastward across 10th Avenue to the Harlem River, while applying contextual zoning —to preserve neighborhood character—to several residential areas west of 10th Avenue. It also includes a plan to replace the Inwood library with a new building that will also include residences.

The estimated $500 million rezoning plan will facilitate 2,600 new affordable housing units and preserve and protect another 2,500 existing affordable homes, according to the city. The mandatory inclusionary housing (MIH) program for Inwood gives developers a choice between devoting 25 percent of units in new developments as affordable housing to households making 60 percent of the area median income (an estimated $56,340 for a household of three people) or setting aside 20 percent of units to be affordable to those making 40 percent of area median income, or $37,560 a year for a household of three.

But Inwood community groups, such as Northern Manhattan is Not for Sale, have accused city officials of having sold out the community, saying residents did not want the rezoning. Before the plan was approved, Inwood community members and organizations held several protests against it, including one incident where some protesters were arrested after taking over local Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez’s office. 

The lawsuit was filed by Northern Manhattan is Not for Sale–a coalition of organizations, residents and business owners impacted by the rezoning–and several individual Inwood residents in December 2018. It challenged the approval of the 2018 rezoning plan, and contended the process the city used to conduct it was incomplete. 

The lawsuit argued the city’s environmental review process failed to examine how the rezoning would impact the demographics of the Inwood community, residential displacement, women- and minority-owned businesses, emergency response times and speculative real-estate activity as well as the cumulative impact of the rezoning and other land-use moves. Those issues were raised during the review process by United Inwood, a constituent group within Northern Manhattan is Not for Sale.

According to Thursday’s ruling, the city conceded that it did not examine those issues–because, under the guidelines that govern how environmental reviews are conducted, such an examination was not required.

Supreme Court judge Verna Saunders disagreed with that logic.

“The public review process exists to allow the residents of the community, who will ultimately reap the benefits and/or consequences of the proposal, to have meaningful involvement in the process and provide the agency with feedback regarding important issues to be reviewed in order to determine, what if any, environmental impact implementation of the proposed plan will have,” she wrote in her decision. “Here, [United Inwood] did just that, yet respondent concedes that the issues raised by [United Inwood] were not considered and thus, any potential significant adverse impact regarding issues raised remain unknown.”

For instance, United Inwood asked the administration to consider the impact on emergency response times of first responders. In opposition the city argued that the technical manual  it uses to guide environmental reviews–known as the CEQR manual–set out methods for analyzing the potential impact of a land-use action on municipal services such as police, fire, hospitals and, separately, the impact on traffic patterns. 

But, according to the judge’s decision, the city also said it did not explicitly analyze the secondary impact on emergency response time because it was not “explicitly recommended by the CEQR manual.” 

Saunders rejected the notion that the CEQR manual had the weight of an official rule or regulation, and noted that the CEQR’s own methodology states that it allows room for “different or additional analyses” when appropriate.

Given that “the Council was not provided the opportunity to review the most recent and relevant information,” Saunders argued, “its process of review incomplete, superficial and arguably, a nullity.” She annulled the Council resolution approving the rezoning and orders the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development to produce “a study of the eight issues raised by Unified Inwood.”

In response to the judge’s decision, the city’s Law Department told City Limits: “We strongly disagree with this ruling which we believe is legally incorrect and contrary to well-established precedent. We stand by the city’s thorough environmental review and will challenge this decision so important projects, including the building of 1,600 new affordable homes in this community, can proceed.”. 

Rodriguez, who spearheaded the rezoning, told City Limits he respects the decision as part of the legal process and “will abide by the final decision.”

Other elected officials from Inwood and other boroughs have long questioned the city’s environmental review process and stood in opposition of the Inwood rezoning. 

“Today is a day of hope for the Inwood community and for all working-class communities of color across New York City who are under threat of predatory rezonings. Judge Saunders has rendered a verdict against the approach the Economic Development Corporation took to rezoning, an approach that put profits before people,” said State Senator Robert Jackson, a member of Northern Manhattan Is Not for Sale.  

Queens Councilmember Francisco Moya said two pieces of legislation he introduced last year , one that would require the city to study and report on the school capacity impacts of land-use decisions and another that would require the city to study secondary displacement resulting from neighborhood rezonings, would address some of the concerns laid out in the Inwood lawsuit. 

“I can’t help but wonder what previous reviews got wrong or missed entirely,” said Moya. “We have to look back at previous rezonings to see what these environmental reviews got right and, critically, what they got wrong so we can improve this process.”

Inwood is one of six neighborhoods rezoned under de Blasio’s housing plan, which calls for creating new density. East New York, Downtown Far Rockaway, East Harlem, Jerome Avenue in the Bronx and Bay Street on Staten Island are the others. Rezonings are pending in Bushwick and Gowanus, and Southern Boulevard in the Bronx is being studied for a possible rezoning. 

While several of those rezoning efforts has sparked opposition, Saunders’ decision represents the first legal victory for rezoning opponents: A lawsuit challenging the East Harlem rezoning was thrown out of court

In a different kind of case, a judge ruled last year that plans for massive new residential towers in Manhattan’s Two Bridges neighborhood had to go through the full Uniform Land-Use Review Procedure, rebuffing the administration.