The suit raises questions not just about one rezoning but also about the balance of power in New York over land-use policy.
The group suing to stop the city’s Inwood rezoning plan on Thursday filed a motion seeking to bring to the state’s highest court a dispute over whether the de Blasio administration short-circuited its appraisal of the impact development might have on the northern Manhattan neighborhood.
The coalition of advocates from Northern Manhattan Is Not for Sale, individual business owners and residents is seeking to annul the 2018 city-initiated rezoning, arguing the city 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 State Supreme Court’s Appellate Division for the First Department overturned the lower-court ruling, reinstating the rezoning.
In asking for leave to appeal to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest, the Inwood advocates are raising questions not just about one rezoning but also about the balance of power in New York over land-use policy.
“This application presents legal questions made more critical by our national conversation about racial equity and justice. If our institutions do not analyze how their proposed major policy decisions will affect people of color, then how can we move toward racial justice?” said Michael Sussman, attorney on behalf of Inwood Legal Action (a member group of the Northern Manhattan is Not for Sale neighborhood coalition) and other petitioners, in a press statement. “Refusing to study potential and likely impacts is tantamount to benign neglect and is wholly unacceptable. We also believe it is not contemplated by the laws which require review of major projects before they are approved.”
A motion for leave of appeal is a formal permission to review a higher court’s decision.
“Can we and all New York City residents ever expect any meaningful role in planning and developing the future of our city or are we to submit to being zoned out and priced out of existence? The pandemic has called into question the very future of real estate in New York City and it is time for a re-set in land use policy,” said Cheryl Pahaham, co-chair of Inwood Legal Action, in a press statement. “We call on the mayor and the governor to include residents in land-use policy making by giving us the ability in law to influence what happens to our homes and communities. We are integral to the character of this city and we will be central to its economic recovery.”
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 the approval vote.
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 environmental impact statement was released 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.
In the motion seeking leave to appeal, Sussman also argued that at the time of the August 2018 City Council vote the Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development, as lead agency for the environmental review of the proposed rezoning, had not yet released a findings statement regarding the environmental impacts of the project and the “petitioners challenged the City Council’s adoption of the rezoning, arguing that it was premature and should have followed, not preceded, the issuance of the lead agency’s findings statement.”
Additionally, the motion argued that despite those concerns raised by the petitioners and other members of the Inwood community, “The city refused to do so and its environmental reviews reflect this declination.”
In July, 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.
According to Inwood Legal action, the city’s Law Department must respond to the motion seeking leave of appeal by August 31, 2020. Typically, at the Court of Appeals, leave to appeal is granted if two of the judges agree on the case moving forward. The Court of Appeals has the option to hear the appeal in an expedited procedure.