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Board Deliberates Inwood Rezoning and Community Groups’ Alternatives

Adi Talwar

PS/IS 18 located on the corner of 220 Street and 9th Avenue. One point of contention between the de Blasio administration and some residents is whether local schools have space to absorb the new residents likely to arrive after a rezoning.

At a series of long committee meetings this week, Manhattan Community Board 12 deliberated the city’s proposed rezoning of Inwood, with board members expressing concerns about the impact of the plan on neighborhood character, infrastructure and affordability.

The rezoning, which is the fifth neighborhood rezoning spearheaded by the de Blasio administration as part of the mayor’s 12-year affordable housing plan, would allow bigger buildings on Dyckman, Broadway and West 207 Street as well as the industrial areas east of 10th Avenue, with a portion of the new housing required to be income-targeted. It would also use “contextual zoning”—or zoning that preserves neighborhood character with height limits and other restrictions—on many adjacent residential blocks.

The city has also launched the Inwood NYC Action Plan, a suite of investments and programs to address issues like infrastructure, workforce development, community resources, and the preservation of existing affordable housing. All the city’s commitments will be tracked on the city’s new Neighborhoods Rezoning Commitments Tracker.

In addition to hearing presentations from various city agencies involved in the proposal, the board also heard alternatives from community groups that have strong concerns about the city’s proposal, including the Inwood Small Business Coalition, Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale, Inwood Preservation and others. Those stakeholders are demanding new anti-displacement strategies for small businesses and residents, a more extensive use of contextual zoning, modest levels of additional development and other changes to the city’s proposal.

Community Board 12 has until March 26 to issue an advisory opinion and recommendations on the city’s plan, which will be followed by another advisory opinion from Borough President Gale Brewer. The City Planning Commission and ultimately the City Council then take binding votes.

Accepting more density

The city argues that addressing Inwood’s affordable housing crisis requires changing the zoning to allow greater development, including a portion of mandated income-targeted housing. The city’s environmental analysis predicts that the rezoning would over the course of 10 years encourage the creation of 4,348 apartments with over 12,000 new residents, as well new commercial and community facility space.

At the Land Use Committee meeting on Wednesday night, some board members questioned the scale of the city’s plan—including zoning designations that would allow buildings of over 20 stories by the waterfront—and the potential impact of the population increase on neighborhood infrastructure.

Adam Meagher of the Economic Development Corporation said the proposal sought to “strike a balance” between different needs, using contextual zoning with eight-story height limits to preserve the 5- to 8-story scale of buildings in residential parts of the neighborhood but also allowing more development on the underutilized land by the waterfront. He noted that design regulations would require those waterfront buildings to be set back before rising to their full height. Other EDC representatives said that development would not necessarily happen overnight and that the city looked forward to feedback from the board about what types of infrastructure most needed investment.

There are residents who want the proposed contextual zoning expanded to the residential areas south and the north of the current proposal’s footprint, but EDC’s Charlie Samboy said this would require another rezoning application and was not possible at this time. On the flip side, Reverend J.W. Dell of Holy Trinity Church complained the city’s proposed contextual rezoning would reduce his church’s development potential. Samboy suggested that the board could look into the issue—meaning the board could potentially recommend a change in the zoning to accommodate a development project on the church’s property.

Some residents have expressed concerns to the board that the city is underestimating the number of sites that are likely to be redeveloped. According to an analysis conducted by residents affiliated with the alternative planning efforts, a maximum of about 16,000 apartments could be built if every possible rezoned site was redeveloped. While recognizing that this isn’t likely, they questioned the city’s assumption that only a fourth of those possible apartments would be built, pointing to specific examples where they believe the city wrongly assumed development wouldn’t happen.

Board members and residents also observed the lack of a new school in the plan. When it comes to elementary school seats, the city says that without a rezoning there are expected decreases in enrollment and increases in school capacity over the next 10 years. For that reason, the city says, even with the additional students added by a rezoning, the neighborhood will still have plenty of seats available. This is hard for some Inwood residents to imagine, given that at present eight of the district’s 17 elementary schools are already well above-capacity, according to the Department of Education’s utilization rates.

The meeting also was an opportunity to shed light on some confusion about the city’s development plans for the areas east of 10th avenue. The city’s plan reserves an area north of West 215th Street for large, institutional buildings, and there are questions about whether New York Presbyterian Hospital wants to expand there. Meagher said the proposal’s treatment of that area is “not for a specific institution” and “we have no specific plans in mind” though he mentioned that there are already local institutions like New York Presbyterian Hospital that could be well positioned to use the space. Asked whether the rumors were true that the railyard might be decked over and redeveloped, Samboy said there were no such plans.

Concerns about affordability

Under the de Blasio administration’s mandatory inclusionary housing policy, the rezoning would ensure that 20 to 30 percent of the new housing is targeted to families making within a range of specific incomes. Critics say that the income-targeted housing is not affordable enough and that the 70 to 80 percent of the units that will be market-rate will drive up neighborhood prices across the board.

In his first remarks at Wednesday’s Land Use Committee meeting, Samboy told a personal story in an effort to counter the perception that EDC staff were outsiders with no understanding of local concerns about displacement. Samboy said he’d grown up in the Bronx on Section 8 assistance, but when he started making his own income, he couldn’t live with his mother in that apartment anymore but also couldn’t find housing that he could afford. Land Use Chair Wayne Benjamin acknowledged Samboy’s story and the problem that some families are stuck in the middle, unable to afford either subsidized housing or market-rate housing.

Later, however, a resident took issue with the sentiment of those earlier points. She said that according to a new CUNY study on the displacement of Dominican households from Inwood, the incomes of Dominican residents in Washington heights and Inwood have stayed almost the same, at around $30,000, since 1999. The notion that “Dominican immigrants… can’t afford to stay here because the prices are capped [would be] really false,” she said, adding that future housing needed to target such low-income families. Other residents questioned whether boosting the housing supply would necessarily lower rents and raised the possibility that it would instead cause displacement.

“Our plan is to create affordable housing and housing of different types. This is not a plan for displacement,” said Samboy, but Washington Heights resident Lena Meléndez pushed back. “It was not a plan of displacement in Williamsburg… why do you want us to believe that it’s not going to happen here … ?”

At Thursday’s Board 12 Housing and Human Service Committee meeting, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) further elaborated on the city’s strategy to create and preserve affordable housing in Inwood. The agency said it can provide subsidies to developers willing to offer 100 percent affordable units, is developing 100 percent affordable housing and a new library and pre-K program on the site of the Inwood library, and is investing in a number of initiatives to protect tenants in existing rent-regulated housing, among other efforts. Since 2014, HPD has increased inspections in the area by 11 percent, increased the issuing of violations by 21 percent, surveyed 163 distressed properties and provided 2,200 tenants in Inwood with anti-harassment services.

But the meeting was heated, with Committee Chair Ayisha Oglivie, other committee members and residents expressing doubts about the city’s ability to prevent displacement in the event of the rezoning. “If you add pressure to these buildings where we already know there’s harassment and we already know there’s pressure, then it’s going to explode,” said one board member. There was also discussion about the nearly one third of rent-stabilized apartments in Inwood that have preferential rents, with tenants who could be subject to massive rent hikes at the will of the landlord.

Board members pushed the city to acquire other sites for affordable housing. Richard Louis, first vice chair of the board, also urged the city to intercede in Con Edison’s plan to auction two of its properties in the rezoning area to private developers, and acquire those properties for itself.

“I think the feeling is that we’re giving away too much,” said Louis. “You should probably look at it and deal with Con Edison in another way.”

Some board members and residents opposed the incorporation of the library redevelopment within the application for the rezoning, saying it was too much to consider at once. A representative from New York Public Library said the library would seek a temporary space, not a mobile trailer, one year prior to construction and that it would provide “core services.” To replace other services the library provides, like after-school programs and immigration services, the library will seek to work with nonprofit organizations in the area. Residents are wary, however, that there are no definite plans in place.

Detailed alternatives

A variety of neighborhood groups are seeking to influence the board’s recommendations on the project. These groups—together calling themselves Unified Inwood—are in the process of forming one merged proposal, which will be released in the coming days.

As reported by City Limits on Wednesday, Inwood Small Business Coalition has drafted a proposal that would apply the contextual rezoning, with eight-story height limits, on Dyckman Street, Broadway and West 207th Street (rather than increase them to 11 or 14 stories, as the city has proposed). Their plan would also reserve a spot east of 10th Avenue for a wholesale business district and put in place new policies to protect small businesses from eviction and prevent an influx of big box stores.

A draft alternative plan outlined by Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale (a coalition of community organizations, faith-based groups, and residents) includes several policiesto improve the protection of tenants in existing affordable housing, such as the creation of a fund to purchase distressed buildings from for-profit landlords and place them on a community land trust, which is a community-controlled entity that ensures property stays affordable in perpetuity.

The coalition is also calling for the immediate roll-out of the city’s Right to Counsel program to the Inwood and Washington Height’s ZIP codes (it’s being phased in over five years) and expanding to Washington Heights the anti-harassment tenant services the city is offering in Inwood.

The NMN4S draft plan also says that all housing created by the rezoning should be 100 percent affordable and target families at a range of incomes making below $85,400, including 20 percent for families earning below at or below $17,000. Under existing policies, developers cannot be required to build 100 percent affordable housing; they can only be incentivized. The report says there’s a need for new mechanisms to ensure developers take advantage of city subsidies, and it also demands the development of affordable housing on all public land by nonprofit developers and the community land trust.

That plan also includes a number of strategies to protect small businesses, investments in infrastructure, improved community engagement efforts, and a system to ensure that development creates pre-apprenticeship programs and career-track jobs for local residents.

A draft plan by Inwood Preservation proposes a more widespread application of eight-story contextual zoning to the north and south and on Dyckman, Broadway and West 207, and even lower heights in a few spots where the buildings are smaller. It also recommends buildings of a roughly similar scale in the areas east of 10th Avenue, with affordable housing required in that area. The plan supports the idea of carve outs for industrial businesses in some spots, allows for commercial lower-floors on some corridors, but scraps the city’s plan to reserve an area north of West 215 Street for a non-housing institutional use. Even with these reductions in density, it says that assuming that 50 percent of maximum possible development occurs, the areas east of 10th Avenue could still see a growth of roughly 7,000 new apartments.

It also would prohibit development in flood zones based on 2032 climate-change projections and designate a portion of the waterfront for a city-owned park.

Reactions to the alternatives

At committee meetings this week, members of these groups began to present elements of the plans to the board. Both EDC’s Samboy and Land Use Chair Benjamin commended the level of detail and helpful guidance in the draft plan circulated by Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale. Benjamin also noted that the board had previously supported the idea of tailored contextual rezoning, with different designations to match different parts of the neighborhood.

Yet Wayne wasn’t dismissive of the city’s efforts. “There are varied interests to be balanced but balance is the key phrase…and we hope that is what the city is aiming to do,” he said, explaining that while the concepts of the city’s plan are generally agreeable, there’s still work to be done to figure out the right “balance.” He also said it was important to acknowledge that rent pressures would continue to increase even without new development.

The board has already embraced the concept of the community land trust. In December the board passed a resolution in support of community land trusts and recommended that a Washington Heights property owned by the Department of Transportation could be transferred to a CLT. Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale and Riverside Edgecombe Neighborhood Association have launched a petition to ask the de Blasio administration to help facilitate the transfer of that site, and Councilmember Mark Levine has also become an advocate.

One critical question of the alternative proposal came from Peter Psathas (according to property records, his family owns a property on Broadway). Psathas asked if the groups had analyzed the building costs for developers under their lower-density proposal, adding that it doesn’t make sense for developers to build if banks won’t get them financing they need. Dave Thom, one of the presenters, said they hadn’t conducted such an analysis.

See here for a full schedule of upcoming Inwood community board meetings.