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Court Quashes Push for Racial Equity in NYC Neighborhood Planning

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The city’s embattled 2018 rezoning of Inwood will now move forward.

Dozens of high-rise apartment buildings densely packed together in Northern Manhattan.
The Northern Manhattan community coalition that filed the lawsuit is mulling an additional appeal.
Max Touhey

A precedent-setting court ruling could have forced the city to study the racial impacts of a neighborhood rezoning, potentially making those plans more equitable. But an unanimous appeals court decision this week reversed that directive, and quashed what would have represented a significant change in the city’s approach to reshaping neighborhoods.

Now, a 2018 rezoning of Inwood — which has been stalled since Northern Manhattan advocates filed a lawsuit against the plan shortly after it was approved — will move forward. This reversal is a resounding blow to community advocates who hoped the challenge would force a deeper study of the rezoning’s racial and socioeconomic implications on Inwood — and serve as a milestone for advancing more equitable city planning.

In December, Supreme Court Justice Verna Saunders sided with community opponents and annulled the City Council’s approval of sweeping land use changes to 59 blocks of Inwood. Saunders ruled that the city “failed to take a hard look at the relevant areas of concern identified by the public,” such as the potential for rental displacement, impacts on the neighborhood’s racial makeup, and the effect rezoning would have on minority and women-owned businesses. This order would have mandated a deeper well of information be made available to the decision makers tasked with approving the Inwood plan, and potentially future rezonings.

However, this week a panel of five appellate court judges vetoed that mandate, and instead said that the city is not legally required to “parse every sub-issue as framed by petitioners.” This essentially declares that because the city doesn’t have a legal obligation for a greater study of these neighborhood impacts — regardless of their staggering importance to communities — the de Blasio administration simply doesn’t have to take a deeper look. The Council therefore “acted properly, and consistently” in approving the rezoning in 2018, the judges wrote in their Thursday decision. Now the neighborhood plan, and all the residential development linked to it, can begin to take shape.

The legal battle is the latest in a decades-long debate over how land use changes that pave the way for an influx of new housing, particularly in low-income, communities of color, can speed up gentrification and push longtime residents out of their neighborhoods.

James Johnson, a corporation counsel for the city’s Law Department, acknowledged that the questions raised by Northern Manhattan advocates are meaningful, but stressed that a green light for the Inwood rezoning “is a win for New Yorkers.”

“The petitioners raise important issues of equity, but this case was not the place for them to be resolved,” said Johnson. “It is an important moment to move forward and dramatically address a housing shortage that overwhelms many families in this city.”

The $500 million rezoning plan is projected to bring 2,600 new affordable housing units to the neighborhood and preserve the affordability of another 2,500 existing homes, according to city estimates. The rezoning is also set to usher in upgrades to public transit, parks, schools, and to bring a revitalized public library branch to Inwood.

Taconic Partners Co-CEO Charles Bendit, who plans to build 725 apartments — 25 percent of which are set aside as “affordable” — at the former Pathmark site on West 207th Street, praised the ruling. “[This] paves the way for exactly the sort of investments in affordable housing and other essential community benefits across the city that are needed as we work to recover from the current public health and economic crisis,” Bendit said.

Throughout the rezoning process, the de Blasio administration maintained that it was under no legal obligation to study rezoning impacts by race, ethnicity, or national origin — and that it was at the city’s sole discretion to decide which impacts are “most relevant” to study. The city has said that since it determined that the Inwood rezoning was not going to spur “an adverse displacement effect” on locals — because it would add housing — it didn’t make sense to go further and do a racial impact analysis.

Real estate experts have argued that forcing the city to take a deeper look at the potential racial and socioeconomic impacts triggered by a rezoning would distort the environmental review process, which is already under fire for wildly off-base impact projections for some rezonings. In that vein, the judges wrote in their ruling that their hands are tied with regard to questioning the scope of the City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) and that those concerns “can only be raised to the legislative body that periodically revises the criteria.”

Inwood Legal Action, part of the Manhattan Is Not For Sale coalition that filed the lawsuit, says the group will soon vote on whether or not to appeal the decision. Cheryl Pahaham, the group’s co-chair, took aim at Mayor Bill de Blasio who, in the wake of protests that rocked the city following the May police killing of George Floyd, formed a Racial Justice and Reconciliation Commission and painted Black Lives Matter murals across the boroughs.

“We are deeply disappointed by the court’s ruling,” says Pahaham. “If Mayor de Blasio truly believes that #BlackLivesMatter, he should support our calls for a racial impact study, and provide equal housing opportunities to Asian, Black, and Latino New Yorkers.”