A development battle in Inwood, in upper Manhattan, might seem like a simple neighborhood dispute, so common in New York City. But anyone concerned about the city’s future should pay attention to the court fight playing out there over two proposed housing and retail developments overlooking the Harlem River.
The case pits Bill de Blasio’s administration against a community group called Northern Manhattan is Not for Sale. The dispute raises a question of whether property owners can rely on the law when it says that they’re permitted to build. If a December court ruling putting the developments on hold is affirmed on appeal, then the answer to that question is no.
The developments are significant in scope and crucial to Mayor de Blasio’s vision of cross-subsidized affordable housing. The first, at 207th Street, is a 700,000-square-foot combination housing and commercial development, including 725 housing units, planned by developer Taconic Partners. The second is a 544,000-square-foot development, including 615 housing units, proposed by Madd Equities for Ninth Avenue.
Both projects exemplify the de Blasio approach to housing development, using high-density zoning to build more low-rent apartments. City financing, along with rezoning, motivates private developers to build housing for a range of income levels. According to court arguments in support of rezoning, the Taconic development would include low-income and moderate-income units, while the Madd project would include both “affordable and moderate-income” units, to be rent-stabilized for 50 years. The city council passed zoning reforms making such developments possible—and the developers had every reason to believe that they could proceed.
Enter Northern Manhattan is Not for Sale and an argument that could, if it prevails, stop development citywide. Though the city, as part of the rezoning process, performed an extensive environmental-impact review, opponents allege that the process was inadequate. A judge agreed, ruling that the city had not sufficiently examined the “socioeconomic consequences” of the new developments, which, opponents claimed, would displace residents and businesses and have an outsize “racial impact.”
It’s conceivable that the proposed developments would accelerate the area’s gentrification, and that white middle-class newcomers would flock to what the New York Times has called Manhattan’s last affordable neighborhood. New stores might compete with local restaurants and hairdressers. Or perhaps not: newcomers might prefer the existing stores, while current residents with higher incomes might move to the new developments, leaving rent-stabilized units open to others. Moreover, post-pandemic, fears of the gentrification of marginal neighborhoods like Inwood might wane, as more companies permit people to work remotely.
Indeed, there’s good reason to think that the Inwood projects won’t go forward, even if the developers prevail in their court appeal. Covid-19 has upended the Manhattan housing market. Demand has plummeted. The mayor has also proposed significant cuts to the city’s capital budget for housing: $583 million for fiscal year 2020 and $457 million for fiscal year 2021. The New York Housing Conference has estimated that these reductions will jeopardize financing for some 5,000 affordable units citywide.
Even if the projects don’t go forward, however, the appeals court should not uphold the state supreme court’s ruling that environmental-impact reviews must include extensive consideration of socioeconomic effects, with an eye toward preserving existing demographic conditions forever. Not all that long ago, Inwood was Irish, Washington Heights German-Jewish, and East Harlem was Italian. Almost any New York neighborhood has seen multiple cycles of change. A city that evolves is a city that’s alive. Poor neighborhoods become rich; rich neighborhoods can become poorer. It’s critical that the city not set a dangerous precedent that would harm its ability to build housing for years to come.