Represent NYC: Will de Blasio’s Rezoning Plan Make or Break Inwood?

As the City Council prepares to vote on Mayor de Blasio’s controversial Inwood rezoning plan, longtime residents are speaking out in the hopes of swaying their decision. The Mayor claims that the plan would allow the city to build more affordable housing units, but critics say it would only be a gateway to gentrification.

On this episode of “Represent NYC,” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer sits down with Community Board 12 Chair Shah Ally and urban planner Orlando Rodriguez to review the ins and outs of the rezoning plan, weigh the risks and discuss ways it could be improved.

This episode originally aired in May 2018. 

Read the full episode transcript below: 

Gale Brewer: 00:29 I'm Gale Brewer, the Manhattan Borough President, and this is Represent NYC, on Manhattan Neighborhood Network. Gale Brewer: 00:35 When the city considers land news changes, from small variances to major neighborhood re-zonings, my office waves in as part of the Unified Land Use Review procedure, or ULUP, for short. As part of this affordable housing plan, the mayor is pushing re-zonings in neighborhoods across the city to spur new housing development, that includes affordable units.

 

Gale Brewer: 01:01 Right now, we're reviewing a proposal to rezone Inwood, Manhattan's northern-most neighborhood. Inwood is special. It's really special. It is mixed income, it is multi-cultural, and it has an array of different businesses that form the backbone of the community. It has local merchants, and wholesalers, and auto shops and parts suppliers. They all flourish there. Meanwhile gentrification is slower, because of so much of Inwood's housing is rent stabilized. But a lot of tenants are still at risk.

 

Gale Brewer: 01:34 If we do nothing, it is possible that real estate pressure will eventually displace local residents and businesses. It has started already. Well if we do the re-zoning the wrong way, we could make things worse. Recently my office said no to the current plan. But we also mapped out how it could be fixed.

 

Gale Brewer: 01:54 Some highlights. One, the plan needs more affordable housing for sure. Two, the affordable housing needs to be more affordable, for sure. We need support to help existing businesses avoid displacement. And to be honest with you, the city doesn't have a plan on that issue in particular. And in general, we need to protect existing residential tenants with a new seven point $5 million a year fund for legal services, among other things.

 

Gale Brewer: 02:26 With me today to discuss Inwood, the re-zoning plan and our perspectives on what it gets right and wrong, are two really wonderful people. One, Shah Alley, the chair of community board 12 covering Washington Heights and Inwood and he has been a phenomenal chair, and Orlando Rodriguez, senior urban planner.

 

Gale Brewer: 03:03 And I know Shah, I want to congratulate you because the work the community board did on this topic is phenomenal. You had hundreds of meetings, I know you talk about it. But congratulations.

 

Shah Alley: 03:14 Thank you, Madam President.

 

Gale Brewer: 03:17 Orlando, a little bit about the plan. In Inwood.

 

Orlando Rodriguez: 03:18 So the main piece of the plan is to create a special district in Inwood. And five sub districts within the special district. And the special district allows the city to create very special zoning licenses or prohibitions that are outside of the traditional toolbox of the zoning resolution. But the five sub-districts that the re-zoning proposal creates, are the Sherman Creek sub district, which is located east of 10th avenue from 202nd street to 207th street. There is an Upland Wedge sub-district, which is located along 10th avenue, underneath the elevated One train. From about 207th street to 215th street. And there is a tip of Manhattan sub-district, which is located from 218th street to 220th street, east of 10th avenue. Then you have the commercial U, which is made up of Dyckman Street, Broadway, between Dyckman Street and 207th Street, and 207th street between 10th Avenue and Broadway. Then, finally, you have the Upland Core, which is essentially the remainder of Inwood outside of those other sub-districts.

 

Orlando Rodriguez: 04:46 In the Sherman Creek area, the main component of that zoning framework is going to be the conversion of what is essentially a manufacturing district to a residential district with some mix of commercial space as well.

 

Orlando Rodriguez: 05:03 In the Upland Wedge, that's going to see a change from auto-related businesses, again, to residential, to spur residential development in that district. The tip of Manhattan, it is mainly going to be preserved as a manufacturing district, but a large chunk of that sub-district is going to be converted to also facilitate residential development. And then, along the commercial U area, there is going to be an increase in development potential of commercial space, as well as a significant increase in residential development as well.

 

Orlando Rodriguez: 05:47 But the remainder of the area is essentially going to be zoned what they call contextually, to remain in line with the current and existing physical form of the neighborhood, and that's essentially the simplest way to break down the rezoning.

 

Gale Brewer: 06:06 Well, thank you very much. I just want to say, for the viewers, that we put in our office, we had a hearing, we had about 5 or 600 people, as you know, when we were in the process of our discussion and our proposal, so we had this, and we sent this to 19,000 residents, and it includes a map of all of Inwood in terms of the rezoning proposal. If anybody's interested, they can call our office even though the process from our perspective has been submitted, it's still very much in play, in terms of the city council.

 

Gale Brewer: 06:39 The second thing I want to say is thank you for that rendition. It's still a proposal, and we'll hear from the chair of the community board. They did their part and now it's up to the city council, but this is, when people hear about rezoning, I don't think, unless the live in Inwood or live in East Harlem, they don't know the amount of work that goes into it and the challenges of, "Okay, if we produce more affordable housing, then that also means market rate, what AMI for income for the residents who would move into the portion that is affordable, and how long will that portion be affordable. I would say, in some cases, if it's part of the mandatory inclusionary housing program that the mayor supports and that we support, it's only a certain percentage, 25 maybe 30%. Anything more could only be for the life of any kind of property tax reduction.

 

Gale Brewer: 07:33 The nuances and the details and the time that goes into producing all of these are so complicated, so I thank you very much for being here, and we'd love to hear, from your perspective, what the community board proposed. Shaw Alley: 07:48 Sure. Thank you, Gale, for having us here, having the community board here, and thank you for those kind words about the work we've done on this project, and I will say that the community board did do a lot of good work, and we certainly took the lead from your office on how to engage the community in an effective way.

 

Shah Alley: 08:04 This was, and still is, a interesting proposal, because it's once in a generation. We will have spot up zoning of buildings or properties every so often. That's pretty common, but it's not common to have an entire plan to rezone a neighborhood. It's once in a generation. I believe the last time Inwood was rezoned or proposed as over 50, 60 years ago.

 

Shah Alley: 08:28 So this was something very significant, and we made sure that we engaged the community in a way that it wasn't just one meeting, we understood. The board needed to understand this complex issue. We have a wonderful [inaudible 00:08:41] chair, Wayne Benjamin, who started the draft. The resolution ultimately belongs to the board, but he wrote a wonderful draft, and if any of the viewers are interested, they should go on Manhattan Community Board 12's website and download this 15 page document.

 

Shah Alley: 08:55 We ultimately voted not to support the plan, but we viewed it more as a roadmap to how we can get support, because there are advantages to be taken in this project, but also, as you said, and I think it's the correct way of looking at it, you've got to make sure you do it correctly, because if you do nothing, that can be bad, if you do it the wrong way, it definitely could be bad. We have to make sure we take it one step at a time.

 

Shaw Alley: 09:17 There are certain advantages, but something that the viewers should know is that the board has, for years, advocated for certain aspects of this rezoning that we're happy are included, such as contextual rezoning of properties West of Broadway, to keep the context. These are big words and big concepts that even now, I still have a hard time understanding, but to the viewers, it's if buildings are six to eight stories tall, it's out of place to put a tower that's 25, 30 stories. We're seeing that all over the city, luckily not for Inwood yet. Inwood has been, while it's the northernmost neighborhood in our borough, in our county, it also has the least amount of new development, so there is potential.

 

Shah Alley: 10:05 While we do have the highest stock of rent control and rent stabilized, we also have the fewest new construction. If things are affordable, and as Orlando was speaking, I started a list and the list just kept growing, because the issues are always there at this issue of affordability. I know we've talked about a lot, what is the AMI, was the area median income.

 

Shah Alley: 10:25 In our resolution, we asked that it's not the AMI, but the Inwood base, and those numbers would change a lot. We asked the city to aggressively look at city-owned properties for 100% affordable and then there's also the Inwood library project that's been bundled into this [inaudible 00:10:42] application.

 

Shah Alley: 10:43 They also looked at if it was market rate buildings to give us deeper affordability including that Inwood project. We also need to look at key functions of any project like this. If you're going to build and add more residents, whatever that number looks like, 5000, 7000, are we addressing infrastructure, are we addressing our trains. Our trains are stressed as it is, our transportation system. Are we looking at better access to our bus lines? Those are some of the considerations.

 

Gale Brewer: 11:11 Orlando, I would love to hear some of your stories of the people you met in the auto shops, in the businesses. Can you share some of those stories, people who have leases, people who are working, maybe, with a high school degree, but making a good salary and so on and so forth and their concerns.

 

Orlando Rodriguez: 11:29 Yeah, so over the past year, as a way to prepare for your recommendation, we felt that it was important to go out there and meet with individual business owners, with individual residents in buildings that were recently purchased. Many people on your team were out on the street meeting owners of auto-related businesses, auto repair shops, and just getting to know their experiences and what their fears are given that there's a rezoning on the way.

 

Orlando Rodriguez: 12:09 And what we found is that many of them have been in the neighborhood for three decades in some instances, and they had the courage to move into those neighborhoods in a time when it wasn't as popular, and there wasn't as much excitement around it, and it was dangerous at times. But many of them employ three to four individuals, some of which are new to the country, and this was an opportunity for them to find gainful employment, provide for their families, to send back to their families, to where they're from. The current plan proposed will essentially make those businesses no longer conforming uses, meaning that they will not be performing as of right and it's essentially hostile to them.

 

Orlando Rodriguez: 13:06 Other business owners that we met with and spoke to and even conducted zoning 101s, teaching them the basics of zoning located on the commercial U, they are in great threat of being displaced, and many of those folks have been in the neighborhood for decades as well. As you've always championed the small businesses, and what you said earlier, they are essentially the backbone of that neighborhood.

 

Gale Brewer: 13:35 I am so concerned about these issues. I'm like a crazy person on this topic. I looked it over, I know you talked about the automotive businesses, the mom-and-pop businesses, also bring up Dyckman houses, which isn't specifically in the zoning, but we want to make sure that those residents are also part of any support that might be allocated to this plan, so let's talk about them, and we'll talk more about the housing.

 

Shah Alley: 13:59 So, one of the things you mentioned at the beginning was the engagement of our residents. The board has 60 days to review. We had this issue. We have 10 subject matter committees, and Inwood rezoning was on every single committee. We had it for at least three months in a row, we had specialty meetings with the residents. In fact, some of the residents called it rezoning fatigue. We've heard it and we said, "At no point will this go through until everyone is heard." There is a lot of fear, there's a lot of concerns, and a part of it is because of the unknown, but part of it is folk are saying, "Look, streets could be clean, schools could be good, but if I'm not living here, it doesn't matter to me."

 

Shah Alley: 14:43 I think your office, and I want the viewers to know this, your office did something brilliant which, had I known ahead of time, the board might have done it. You put a panel together where businesses came and gave testimonial, and it put these real concepts, you put a voice to those concepts and the feedback was amazing. What our residents wanted was to be heard and have someone hear them, and that happened.

 

Shah Alley: 15:06 One of the big misconceptions is that the rezoning is a development plan, but it's not a development plan. It's a change of laws, which will then get to development, so folks are worried about displacement, they're worried that they're being kicked out. That's why that 7.5 million for legal services is absolutely necessary, so we don't have our residents being preyed upon so they can get out and then new development happens.

 

Gale Brewer: 15:32 Yeah, because you also have the problem in terms of the residential tenants, is that 30% of your rent stabilized or rent regulated are, in fact, preferential rents, which means their rents could go up at any time, but hopefully legal aid attorneys could assist for that.

 

Shah Alley: 15:44 Sure, and then the commercial, that is a big concern. It's a big concern in general, because we don't have a lot of big box stores and part of our resolution actually called for a limitation of square footage of commercial establishments other than supermarkets, so we don't want the banks. We need banks, but we don't need banks on every corner, we don't need a CVS in every corner, but we do need supermarkets.

 

Shah Alley: 16:12 We called for, if there's going to be development, that it would be designed for smaller businesses. These auto shops, this is the fabric. Every community is different and unique and Inwood is the last real immigrant population, and we're pushing people out with this development and the fare is real and we have to do things to help them.

 

Gale Brewer: 16:30 I know, talking about the folks on Dyckman and what we call the commercial U, one of the issues would be, I think what we said was we would like to see retail in other parts of the plan, such as in Sherman Creek or elsewhere before there's any discussion or movement on any commercial U.

 

Gale Brewer: 16:51 I think the problem is that those taxpayers, I call them taxpayers, two stories, could easily become, yes, housing of all kinds, market and affordable, but you don't always get the commercial to come back and how in the world, you would have to be a new concept that would mandate that, that commercial come back, but you have to come back at a rent that's affordable.

 

Gale Brewer: 17:13 It's just what you said, you can make these changes, and then the people that live there won't be there, and the changes will be so that the commercials won't be there, so when you talk to the folks in the commercial area, did you see folks thinking that this would be good for them or bad for them, or as Shaw indicated, were still unknown?

 

Orlando Rodriguez: 17:31 I think that there's a lot of fear that it's going to be bad for them. There's a serious question as to whether local retail can survive in new construction. Just because the commercial rent is going to increase to a level that is just not sustainable for those types of businesses.

 

Orlando Rodriguez: 17:53 So, their concerns are rational, and what you call in your plan is for significant assistance with those small businesses, either assisting them in relocating, creating an incubator space where either new entrepreneurs or current entrepreneurs can receive assistance and figure out new methods of operating, and also providing some form of assistance to landlords to provide affordable commercial rent so that these businesses can continue to operate in new construction.

 

Gale Brewer: 18:38 I mean, this is an ongoing story city-wide, it's not just in Inwood, but I think it gets highlighted because Inwood has the most wonderful commercial sector now. What were some of the discussions that took place at the board on this topic? I'm sorry to harp on that, but it is my pet peeve in terms of the city of New York.

 

Shah Alley: 18:58 It's something that deserves to be either harped on or focused on because of the lack of real protection for them, and something else that we've heard was that everyone's welcome to Inwood. Everyone's welcome to Inwood, find your way up there, and when you get there, you will know you're in Inwood. It doesn't look like any other part of this city, the uniqueness of it is amazing, and when you see it, you're gonna say, "We need to keep it this way."

 

Shah Alley: 19:22 Our small businesses employ local residents. We don't have many people coming into Inwood to work, you're employing your neighbors, you're employing your friends, and most times, that's the only income of their family. This business goes, so does that income. There's so many collateral effects that, that's what we were hearing.

 

Shah Alley: 19:39 We were hearing the business owners who support themselves with a small business, sometimes saving up all their life savings to start a business coming from somewhere else to open this. This was their American dream, and their American dream is being pushed out because of development.

 

Shah Alley: 19:52 They're worried about landlords not extending commercial leases, something, Gale, you and I have worked on was this commercial vacancies and stores being left open, people being pushed out paying one rent, which was affordable and then tripling it, which was akin to not even offering a real extension. If rent has to go up, keep it reasonable and within context of who you're offering it to, but it's a mechanism. I understand it's a business, but it has to be a business with a conscience. And that's what we have to hold these folks to.

 

Gale Brewer: 20:23 The other thing we talked about, which is more positive, in Sherman Creek area, what about access to the waterfront? That's a good aspect of the plan. What did the comm development and we encourage that, but then we also, it follows that old motto: if you don't ask for it, you don't get it. With a potential for development, we also ask for affordability, and affordability for our residents, build something like the Dyckman houses can use, like supermarkets, restaurants. In our resolution, none of our buildings, if the buildings were going to go up, should not be above the Dyckman houses' 14 stories, so keep that in context as well.

 

Gale Brewer: 21:45 And the other issue that comes up a lot is, like you said, the infrastructure. I know students from some of the high schools are often looking, as a project about how little access, because you don't have a lot of stuff, what is the subway situation and the bus situation now?

 

Shah Alley: 22:02 So the bus situation and the subway situation is dire. It's dire now. We have the A train, the number One line and several bus lines. We are already taxed to the point where the delays, residents now are finding it difficult to commute and move around. You add more residents, but without a thoughtful plan as to what you're going to do with the subways, that's a recipe for disaster.

 

Shah Alley: 22:25 Our board had a member who passed recently, Isaiah Obibing, who was always our con ed guy, who always made sure that we were mindful of the infrastructure, do we have the support for it. I think, if the city wants this to go through, they need to address what effects the residents every day. We can talk about theoretical plans like development, but when I leave my home to go to work, it's the subway, so are you increasing service, are you adding more cars, are you updating the bus routes to make them easier to go through traffic? Gale B

 

Brewer: 22:58 The other thing, Orlando, that I know is unique is it's Inwood, in the Sherman Creek area is it's also a distribution center in terms of grocery, bodegas, beer, milk, eggs, so can you talk a little about the people that work there and their concerns?

 

Orlando Rodriguez: 23:15 Sure, the anchor of wholesale business in that area is a Flair of Beverage, Inc. And they provide beverages for stores city-wide. Then, there are several other smaller wholesalers. Again, these are all family-owned, including Flair, the largest of them, which was started in the 50s and began after the owner's family moved from the Bronx.

 

Orlando Rodriguez: 23:49 So, the folks there also have gainful employment. These are the types of jobs that new immigrants don't always find when they arrive here, so they're able to support their families and make that step in social upward mobility. Flair even supports a lot of the bottle...

Shah Alley: 24:23 Redemption.

 

Orlando Rodriguez: 24:24 Redemption in the area, so for folks who are homeless or folks who are just getting by who use that as an additional source of income, it also provides that as a major resource.

 

Gale Brewer: 24:37 We're making sure, one way or another, obviously we know the people who own some of these enterprises, that they stay in the Sherman Creek area with some reshuffling of the deck, so to speak, but I hate to lose one job. That's how I am, and I understand some may go to the Bronx, but we don't want even one job to be lost when they go to the Bronx, and of course, Gale Brewer doesn't want anything to go to the Bronx. But I also am concerned about the library project. I'm supportive, as we know, it's very controversial. Affordable housing above 100%, working with the Robin Hood Foundation. I do wish that we could have a proposal that included the car wash next door, because then we would end up with more affordable. I'm sure the library will be beautiful when renovated, and I also know that the library, because we will make sure, finds a space to have library services and books. Don't forget those books, as well as computers, during the renovation, construction period. But the library certainly came up a lot.

 

Orlando Rodriguez: 25:39 The Inwood libary's sort of a special place.

 

Gale Brewer: 25:42 It is.

 

Orlando Rodriguez: 25:42 For Inwood residents, it's that touch point where it intersects with everyone from East of Broadway, West of Broadway, old, young, it serves so much more, and when you think about a library, it serves so much other functions, other than reading a book. It's in the heat, where people go to cool off, to spend time, childcare even. So, the thought of losing the library for one second really scared people. You know what, that's one of the things where I had to say I agree.

 

Orlando Rodriguez: 26:10 The city, I also [inaudible 00:26:13] that the project does have wonderful potential, the partners who were brought in, The Robin Hood Foundation, [inaudible 00:26:19] Society and Cloth are wonderful community partners.

 

Gale Brewer: 26:22 So, we have to wrap it up. I want to thank, very much, CB 12 chair Shah Alley and Orlando Rodriguez, senior urban planner at the Manhattan Borough President's Office. To recap, the Inwood rezoning is in the middle of the city's land use process. It's not final. It can be changed by the city planning commission and the city council. I issued my recommendations on April 26, 2018. The plan is now in front of the planning commission, which has 60 days to act, then it goes to the city council, which will have 50 days to review it.

 

Gale Brewer: 26:55 I'm Gale Brewer, the Manhattan Borough President. You can follow me on Facebook or Twitter. My name on both is Gale A. Brewer, and if you would like to get email updates, please sign up for my newsletter at manhattanbp.nyc.gov/subscribe.

 

Gale Brewer: 27:13 Thank you for watching Represent NYC on MNN.