'Massively Out Of Scale': Inwood Groups Battle In Court Over City's Rezoning Plan
Inwood and other housing activists gather in front of Foley Square following opening arguments for a lawsuit that seeks to overturn the city’s rezoning plan. (Elizabeth Kim / freepicker)

A legal fight to overturn the city’s controversial rezoning of Inwood began in state Supreme Court on Tuesday as a judge heard oral arguments.

The lawsuit, which was filed last year by a coalition of community and preservation groups, represents the latest in a series of battles between gentrifying communities and the city over rezonings that critics say disproportionately affect minorities. The complaint brought by Inwood residents accuses the city of failing to take a “hard look” at the environmental impact of the rezoning, particularly along racial lines.

“This is about the pushing out and displacement of people of color for the benefit of corporate greed,” said Assembly member Carmen de la Rosa, who grew up in Inwood and represents the district, during a rally following the court hearing.

Joined by several other elected officials, including City Council member Bill Perkins, she said the rezoning plan invites real estate speculation which would lead to rent hikes and displacement for a largely low-income community.

In August 2018, the City Council approved a rezoning of Inwood despite three years of community protests. The leafy northern Manhattan neighborhood, which is considered one of the last bastions of affordability in the borough, was the fifth to be rezoned under the de Blasio administration. The city has said that as a result of the rezoning, 4,100 affordable housing units will be created or preserved. In addition, city officials pledged to make $200 million worth of investments, including a new 20,000-square-foot library, waterfront access, and $50 million in new STEM and robotics programming as well as a new school at the George Washington Educational Campus.

But none of these perks appeared to assuage opponents, who have accused Mayor Bill de Blasio of selling out the city to developers. De Blasio has sought to rezone up to 15 neighborhoods as part of his goal to create and preserve 300,000 units of affordable housing by 2026

Liz DeMayo, an artist who has lived in Inwood since 1993 and attended the rally, said she believed landlords have an incentive flip their buildings to developers seeking to build larger and more expensive apartment buildings.

Her husband, Tim Koelle, said, “I think rezoning can help if it’s done in scale and in consultation with the community.”

But he added: “This was imposed and it’s massively out of scale.”

All told, the rezoning impacts 59 blocks, but will especially affect two large swaths east of 10th Avenue, where one- and two- story warehouses can be replaced by buildings between 18 and 30 stories tall.

Following the court hearing, a spokesman for the city’s law department issued the following statement about the lawsuit:

“The City stands by the approvals it made authorizing this important initiative. We look forward to the Court’s review of the thorough record, which we strongly believe supports the City’s position in this litigation. We remain committed to delivering the investments this community needs, which includes the preservation and development of affordable homes, restoration and creation of waterfront parks, new jobs, educational resources and small business support.”

In 2018, the state Supreme Court in Manhattan sided with the city in a lawsuit brought by the Legal Aid Society on behalf of East Harlem residents fighting a similar rezoning effort in their neighborhood. Justice Carmen Victoria St. George ruled in favor of the de Blasio administration, deciding that city agencies addressed “all relevant areas of environmental concern” in their environmental impact statement.

Nicholas Bloom, a professor of urban policy and planning at Hunter College, said the clashes over rezonings reflected the administration’s decision to rezone neighborhoods rather than attempting changes on a broader scale.

“When you begin focusing on one neighborhood, it really raises the stakes,” he said.

Still, he said that compared with cities across the country, New York City’s rezonings have been accompanied by unprecedented public investments, as evidenced by the Inwood plan. That many residents have been unmoved by those commitments suggests the economic strain they face, he said.

“The fact is that people’s income is not keeping up the cost of living in New York,” he said. As a result, residents are balking at plans that threaten to drive up rents. “People are already stretched,” he added.

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