On Monday night, Inwood residents, community groups and supporters gathered outside of St. Jude’s Church on 205th Street to celebrate their court victory after a Supreme Court judge’s decision annulled the 2018 Inwood rezoning plan last week.
The gathered crowd also doubled down on its message to the de Blasio administration that they were in this fight for the long haul.
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 the 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.”
As a result of the ruling, the city cannot approve projects facilitated by the rezoning.
Taconic Investments Partners, which had a large commercial and residential affordable housing development slated on 207th Street in Inwood, told Crain’s the judge’s decision would muddle their project.
The de Blasio administration signalled it would appeal. Last Friday during Mayor de Blasio’s weekly spot on WNYC Brian Lehrer’s radio show, the mayor said he disagreed with the judge’s decision and said the “studies that were done absolutely conformed with the law and with precedent.”
De Blasio felt the judge’s decision crossed the line into powers reserved for the state legislature or City Council.
“But on the larger very fair question of what are unintended consequences potentially, what about socio-economic factors. We look at this all the time, not only through the formal study but it’s the whole policy making process that attends to a rezoning,” the mayor continued. “We’re constantly asking the question and it’s a simple question – if we do nothing, we end up in a more fair equal place to get more or less affordable housing, what happens to the neighborhood if we do nothing versus if we intervene and add some rules to the equation.”
“If you don’t come in and don’t have the government intervene, I guarantee you it will end up worse because the market right now, it’s been very, very consistent. The market is the only element on the playing field, you will get less and less affordable housing, people will be displaced in huge numbers,” he said during the radio interview.”
He added his administration was nothing like the Bloomberg administration and took the land use and environmental review process very seriously.
Inwood Legal Action, the group comprised of Inwood petitioners such as Northern Manhattan is Not for Sale along with other community groups, small businesses and residents, plans on continuing to organize since the city has said they would challenge the judge’s decision in appellate court.
During the gathering outside St. Jude’s Church, Inwood resident Paul Epstein with supporter and attorney Edda Santiago outlined the points the judge made in her decision.
“The law must reflect the best instincts of our society, not those which are concealed, not those which are fabricated, but the best and most authentic instincts,” said Michael Sussman, the attorney representing Inwood Legal Aid group, to the Inwood crowd outside the church. “Now, when I heard this de Blasio the other day, I heard someone who was not in any way blind or deaf to your message. He was someone who was trying to co-opt your message. He was someone who was speaking the language of affordable housing and claiming that only he had the method and means of implementing affordable housing. When those of us who’ve studied this know that his method and means was really intended to allow for the displacement of those who need affordable housing.”
Sussman asked, while speaking to the crowd, why did the city choose to ignore the request from Inwood residents to expand the environmental review process to include socio-economic impacts. “When people say they want to remain ignorant, what is it they want to remain ignorant of and why?”
In 1973, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) required that any project using federal money had to have its environmental impact assessed. In 1975 New York enacted the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), which requires all state and local government agencies to assess environmental effects before taking any land use actions. This in turn led to the establishment of the City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) in 1977. The CEQR uses a Technical Manual to guide environmental reviews.
According to Howard Goldman, New York Law School professor and former deputy counsel for the city’s Department of City Planning Commission*, the CEQR was initially established to review the impact of a land-use action on the natural environment.
“When governments were making a decision to build a road or fund a program or build a facility, the environment was getting short shrift. There’s language to that effect that says that the environment should be considered along with other factors because the environment was not getting enough attention,” said Goldman. “It is meant to be supplementary and to make sure the environment was spoken for.”
Goldman said the Inwood case may or may not have an impact on the future of rezonings and other large development projects. The judge’s ruling comes as the de Blasio administration 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 last week demanded a broadened environmental review.
Bushwick is not alone in demanding more the city’s environmental study methods. In the Bronx, the Southern Boulevard Coalition, which formed in 2016 after the city announced it wanted to study more than 130 blocks across Longwood and Crotona East neighborhoods, said in an emailed statement after the decision in the Inwood rezoning case, “The Southern Boulevard Coalition, made up of community and labor organizations and local residents in the Bronx, applauds the Supreme Court for recognizing the flaws in the Inwood Rezoning process and issuing a decision to annul the rezoning based on an incomplete Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Local stakeholders in Inwood advocated for the City to do a complete study and analysis of the impacts the rezoning would have on residents, working families, construction workers, and small businesses in the affected area.”
The Southern Boulevard Coalition says it is against a city-initiated rezoning and wants a community-driven process and community-written plan.
Paula Segal, attorney for TakeRoot Justice involved in the Two Bridges lawsuit against a large-scale development, said the judge was correct to say the city needed to take a hard look.
“They don’t need to look at every possible thing. But if it’s reasonable to assume that there’s going to be an impact on something, or if people come and tell you with evidence, then you’re supposed to study it. And they just flat out did not and the city has been in its own applications and in private applications letting these final environmental impact statements go to the reviewers that basically don’t look very different than the draft [versions] and totally ignore the hard work of residents giving them feedback on the draft.”
Segal added: “I think even if [this decision] gets reversed, this, it will mean that the city has to change course [on the environmental review process].”
*This article was corrected to clarify Howard Goldman was deputy counsel to City Planning Commission, not general counsel.