Adi Talwar

The corner of 207th Street and Sherman Avenue in Inwood.

Reversing a decision that could have recast the balance of power over land policy in New York City, a state appeals court on Thursday ruled that the 2018 Inwood rezoning plan could go forward. 

A coalition of advocates from Northern Manhattan Is Not for Sale, along with individual business owners and residents had sued to annul the 2018 rezoning, arguing the city had failed to complete an adequate environmental review. Last December, a lower court agreed with them, and annulled the City Council’s approval of the rezoning.

Last month, the city’s Law Department and the attorney for the coalition went before the Appellate Division to argue over the de Blasio administration’s appeal of that ruling. A typical Appellate Division can take several months, but the Appellate Division First Department’s ruling in the Inwood came in less than two months. 

“This is a win for New Yorkers. This unanimous ruling will allow the creation of thousands of affordable housing units and other community improvements to move forward. We are pleased the court agreed the city’s environmental review was thorough, reasonable and in full compliance with all the law required. The petitioners raise important issues of equity, but this case was not the place for them to be resolved.  It is an important moment to move forward and dramatically address a housing shortage that overwhelms many families in this city,” said James E. Johnson, Corporation Counsel for the city’s Law Department, in an email statement to City Limits. 

This ruling means the city will be able to move forward with the 2018 Inwood rezoning plan as was approved by the City Council.

Questions about the scope of review

The Inwood rezoning was approved by the City Council in August 2018, and was 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. 

The estimated $500 million rezoning plan would have facilitated 2,600 new affordable housing units under the mandatory inclusionary housing (MIH) program and preserved another 2,500 existing affordable homes, according to the city. It included a plan to replace the Inwood library with a new residential building which would sit atop a new library.

Inwood community groups like Northern Manhattan is Not for Sale accused city officials of having sold out the community. 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, who spearheaded the Inwood rezoning.

For most major land-use actions, such as city-initiated rezonings, there has to be an environmental analysis and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a document analyzing the potential impacts of a land use change. The Department of City Planning (DCP) must release a draft EIS before it can launch the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), the multi-step public review process required to legalize a land-use change. DCP’s predictions are based on an assessment of development trends and other factors.

An EIS was done for the Inwood rezoning. However, the Inwood lawsuit argued the city’s environmental review process failed to examine how the rezoning would impact the demographics, 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 nearby land-use moves. Those issues were raised during the review process by United Inwood, a constituent group within Northern Manhattan is Not for Sale.

Ruling: the mayor has latitude

In last month’s oral arguments, the city’s Law Department attorney, Scott Schorr argued the city had met every criteria required by the city’s environmental review process in order for the rezoning to qualify for City Planning Commission and City Council approval.

In June, the attorney for the coalition who sued to overturn the rezoning, Michael Sussman, argued the city had “repeatedly failed” Inwood and have refused to meet the community’s demand for an EIS that included a racial impact study component as part of the larger conversation on racism in the city. 

In its decision, the Appellate Division First Department said the city had done its job. 

“We find that the city’s decision was not arbitrary and capricious, unsupported by the evidence, or contrary to law. The city took the requisite ‘hard look’ at all the issues requiring study under [law]…but did not have to parse every sub- issue as framed by petitioners,” the judges wrote.

Inwood Legal Aid, a constituent organization member of the Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale/Alto Manhattan No Se Vende coalition, said they will hold a vote on how to move forward with their case.

“We are deeply disappointed by the court’s ruling and that the city still refuses to study the racial impact of its proposed rezoning, which would be a significant step toward  addressing the  racial inequality that is baked into the city’s housing policies,” said Cheryl Pahaham, Co-Chair, Inwood Legal Action (ILA), in an email statement to City Limits. “If Mayor de Blasio truly believes that #BlackLivesMatter, he should support our calls for a racial impact study, and provide equal housing opportunities to Asian, Black, and Latino New Yorkers. The voting membership of Inwood Legal Action will be meeting soon to vote on whether we will appeal this decision to the highest level, the New York Court of Appeals.”

Inwood was the sixth neighborhood rezoning approved during the de Blasio era; others occurred in East New York in Brooklyn, Downtown Far Rockaway in Queens, East Harlem, Bay Street in Staten Island and Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. The city had hoped to rezone Bushwick in Brooklyn and Southern Boulevard in the Bronx, but those have been shelved. A possible rezoning in Gowanus is pending.

However, the case could have established a precedent that would have tilted the balance of power in future land-use decisions. Developers hailed the court move.

“Today’s decision means public and private investments in affordable housing, parks, a new library and other neighborhood infrastructure for Inwood will move forward. But this case was always bigger than Inwood, and the ruling paves the way for exactly the sort of investments in affordable housing and other essential community benefits across the city that are needed as we work to recover from the current public health and economic crisis,” said Charles Bendit, Co-CEO of Taconic Partners. 

In 2015, Taconic purchased an estimated 80,000 square-foot parcel in the Inwood and Sherman Creek. The parcel is slated for a mixed-use, commercial and residential, building with over 700 mixed-income apartments plus ground floor retail. The existing site is zoned for manufacturing. The Inwood rezoning would have allowed residential development on the parcel.

Other real estate industry insiders say this was not just a win for the city, it was a win for New Yorkers. 

“This was great news. This was about a city decision. The city approved this rezoning overwhelmingly and the court came to the right conclusion unanimously. And I think it’s an important ruling and it will certainly resonate city wide. But I think it overturns an incorrect reading by the lower court of the environmental review process. So I would say the victory is for the city of New York,” said Mitch Korbey, Herrick, Feinstein partner, and chair of the firm’s Land Use & Zoning Group. 

Korbey said the Inwood community groups arguments were not invalid and it was important to have discussions where equitable reforms can take place in policy and society but the Appellate Division court decision said the city’s method to assess the environmental impact statement was legal and valid. 

“This case is not about whether these issues should be getting discussed as part of the policy decision making process, but this is a narrow [and] very important decision on what is meant as part of the ‘hard look’ that has to be taken in an environment impact statement on social economic issues. And the point is that this EIS didn’t look at those issues. And the court is simply saying that it is not required to parse through every sub-issue that is part of that broader issue of socio-economics, simply it is not required as part of the environmental impact statement.”