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Inwood rezoning struck down following community challenge

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A judge called the city’s review of the contested rezoning “superficial.”

The City Council voted to rezone Inwood in 2018; a judge struck down the approval a year later.
Nathan Kensinger

A judge has nullified the embattled Inwood rezoning, finding that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration “failed to take a hard look” at how the land use changes will impact the neighborhood, court documents show.

The lawsuit, which was filed by a coalition of community advocates including Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale, argues that the city did not conduct a proper environmental review of the 59-block rezoning, which the City Council approved in August 2018. Hon. Verna L. Saunders sided with local leaders, declaring in an unprecedented decision that the city’s analysis is incomplete because officials did not study the racial and socioeconomic impacts the rezoning could have on the area, among other factors.

“Respondent admittedly failed to take a hard look at the relevant areas of concern identified by the public and thus, failed to provide a reasonable elaboration of the basis for its determination,” Saunders wrote in a Supreme Court decision issued Thursday.

Civil rights attorney Michael Sussman, who represented the community advocates, also noted that the Council voted on the plan two months before the city produced what is known as a statement of findings, a document meant to aid in the decision-making process. The city’s lawyers countered that the de Blasio administration’s review complied with city and state legal standards, and that there is no precedent that requires the city to study rezoning impacts by race, ethnicity, or national origin—that’s something recently introduced legislation by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams hopes to change.

But Saunders annulled the Council’s approval of the Inwood rezoning, and ordered the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development to study the issues raised by advocates. In her ruling, she agreed with Sussman that crucial analysis was provided to lawmakers only after the Council’s vote, stressing the move as a misstep.

“If the lead agency had not issued its statement of findings prior to the resolutions passed by the Council, the Council was not provided the opportunity to review the most recent and relevant information, rendering its process of review incomplete, superficial, and arguably, a nullity,” wrote Saunders.

The $500 million rezoning plan is expected to facilitate 2,600 new affordable housing units and preserve another 2,500 existing below-market-rate homes, according to the city. After the rezoning plan was initially floated in 2013, an enormous wave of real estate speculation swept Inwood, with developers soon investing $610 million in properties in anticipation of the zoning changes.

Uptown resident Karla Fisk, a member of Inwood Legal Action, which is among the coalition that filed the suit, called the ruling a big victory for the Manhattan neighborhood and a major blow to the environmental review process used by the city to analyze rezonings.

“I see it as a huge win for Inwood,” said Fisk. “It shows that the environmental impact study process is illegitimate, and that it’s designed to force through rezonings no matter what the community wants.”

Sussman says this could be a pivotal policy moment in how the city evaluates neighborhood rezonings if officials learn from the experience.

“I think citywide they’ll either learn from it, or they won’t,” said Sussman. “My assumption is the law department will say, ‘This is wrong, let’s appeal,’ rather than stopping, looking in the mirror and saying, ‘What can we do better?’”

City Hall referred a request for comment to the city’s Law Department. Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesperson for that department, insisted that exhaustive analysis of the rezoning was conducted and that the city plans to appeal the ruling.

“We strongly disagree with this ruling which we believe is legally incorrect and contrary to well-established precedent,” Paolucci said in a statement. “We stand by the City’s thorough environmental review and will challenge this decision so important projects, including building new affordable homes in this community, can proceed.”

On a frigid Friday morning, two dozen community activists gathered on Dyckman Street to celebrate the legal victory. Residents clogged the thoroughfare, waving signs scrawled with “¡Alto Manhattan no se vende!” and “Rezonings = displacement.”

“People gave their personal time for this; it was from their love for this community and for each other that they fought this fight and carried the torch forward,” said Ava Farkas, executive director of tenant advocacy group The Metropolitan Council on Housing, another coalition member behind the legal challenge.

The office of Inwood Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, who backed the rezoning, said that he is aware of the ruling and that he “respects it and will abide by the final decision.” Queens Councilmember Francisco Moya, who is the chairman of the Council’s Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, lauded the decision and called for the passage of a package of legislation that would force the city to study its past environmental reviews in order to learn from its successes and failures.

“If it weren’t for these dedicated activists, Inwood would surely have been turned into something nobody was prepared for—not the residents who live there now and not the researchers who conducted an incomplete environmental review,” Moya said in a statement. “I can’t help but wonder what previous reviews [the city] got wrong or missed entirely.”