Emotions ran high Thursday night at a public hearing about proposed rezoning plans for Inwood, with elected officials and activists accusing each other of shutting down conversation and exploiting racial dynamics to push their agenda.
The meeting was a chance for residents to respond to a draft rezoning document released last month by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration that would spur thousands of new apartments near the northernmost tip of Manhattan. Hot-button issues include affordable housing provisions and the effect the proposal would have on the character of Inwood.
In addition to debating those details, the 70-plus residents and officials who spoke at Inwood’s Junior High School 52 addressed bubbling tensions in the community.
State Senator Marisol Alcantara accused constituents of using coded racial language in emails and on Facebook in discussions about rezoning, saying that some people have referred to the area’s several Dominican-born Democratic officials, of which she is one, as a “mafia” and “thugs” and told them to “go back to where they’re from.”
“They should be ashamed of themselves,” Alcantara said.
When a resident interrupted U.S. Representative Adriano Espaillat, whose district includes Inwood, to challenge Espaillat’s support for the reconstruction of Inwood Public Library as a combined library and affordable housing complex—an issue that has become central to the rezoning debate—Espaillat fired back.
“My family was in this neighborhood,” he said, standing at a microphone facing the crowd. “My father got shot at, I got held up at gunpoint, we drove the drug dealers out of this neighborhood, we built schools. I have the right to be respected in this neighborhood.”
City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez also scolded constituents, repeating a previous claim that the Save Inwood Library campaign had been “lying” by saying the library would remain closed during construction. Rodriguez has said a temporary library will be set up that period, though the details of such a plan have not been announced.
“I will not engage with those who seek to mislead and instill fear in this process,” said Rodriguez, who supports rezoning and took 60 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. Josue Perez, a rezoning critic, challenged Rodriguez and won 31 percent of the vote.
Some residents expressed frustration Thursday with their elected officials’ focus on racial divides, saying that, while tensions may exist in the neighborhood, residents of all backgrounds should be informed about the potential hazards of rezoning.
Paloma Lara, a 29-year-old Washington Heights resident involved with the group Northern Manhattan is Not for Sale, said in Spanish that she felt Rodriguez was using the Latino community to drum up support for rezoning without offering details about the plan. “As a Dominican woman who cares about Dominican people and immigrants, it was very frustrating for me to see that,” Lara later said in an interview. “This [rezoning] is not going to help the people in this community.”
Seventy-five percent of Inwood residents are Hispanic or Latino, according to census figures.
Alcantara and Espaillat expressed reservations about the proposal in its current form, saying it falls short of meeting the community’s affordable housing needs. The rezoning scope document estimates that over 4,000 residential units could be created by 2032, of which around 1,500 units would be designated as affordable.
Alcantara said that’s not enough, adding that she sees no need for new housing in Inwood unless it is affordable: “I don’t think we need more luxury housing in this neighborhood.”
Twenty-eight percent of Inwood residents earn below $24,500 per year, according to census estimates, and about 70 percent of the housing stock under Community Board 12 is rent-regulated.
Even so, rents in the area increased by 38 percent from 2002 to 2014, according to the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC), and only 200 new units have been built in Inwood in the past two decades. EDC officials, who organized Thursday’s meeting, have indicated that increasing Inwood’s housing stock is ultimately necessary to ease the burden on renters.
Some residents agree, such as 28-year-old Peter Psathas, who commutes from Riverdale to work at Twin Donut on Broadway near 218th Street. Psathas said he would love to move to Inwood, adding that he has spoken to others in the community who are excited about the prospect of more housing, services, and businesses.
“A failure to up-zone and restricting housing supply would only increase rent,” Psathas said.
Still, many speakers Thursday said that the current rezoning plan is too extreme, with the possibility of new buildings as tall as 26 stories in a neighborhood that now has few structures taller than eight stories.
Some residents also argued that the city’s estimates for population increase—about 14,000 new residents in 15 years—are too conservative, and said that city services would be insufficient to support the increase.
The next step in the rezoning process is for the city to generate an environmental analysis, expected to be completed by the end of 2017. Then the rezoning proposal will be reviewed sequentially by Community Board 12, the Manhattan Borough President, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council.
Community Board 12 Chair Shah Ally said the board has not taken a stance on the proposal but has concerns about the prospect of high-rise buildings disrupting the character of the neighborhood.
More than three hours into the meeting, at around 9:30 p.m., Josue Perez, Rodriguez’s primary challenger, tried to strike a diplomatic tone. He thanked Rodriguez for staying so late to hear his constituents’ concerns. And he addressed the friction between Inwood’s elected officials and some of his own supporters.
“Let’s stop calling each other liars,” he said.
Residents who did not speak at Thursday’s meeting may submit comments on the draft document by Sept. 29, via email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or by mail to the Mayor’s Office of Environmental Coordination, Esther Brunner, Deputy Director, 253 Broadway, 14th Floor, New York, NY 10007.
Editors note: An earlier version of this story stated that the current rezoning plan may include new buildings as tall as 30 stories. The accurate height is as many as 26 stories. We regret the error.