New York Supreme Court Justice overturns Inwood rezoning

Anger in the community prompts judge to challenge controversial rezoning

Photo by Dana Licensed under CC 2.0 –

(NEW YORK, NEW YORK)— Almost a full year after Inwood rezoning was approved, Justice Verna Saunders struck down the proposal in New York State’s Supreme Court, according to CurbedNY.

The case pitted community advocates against the representatives they had elected, including Mayor de Blasio and Inwood Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez. Attorney Michael Sussman represented the plaintiffs, mostly local community advocates, arguing that the city did not give due consideration to the racial and environmental impact of rezoning. He argued that rezoning would likely induce displacement for current residents, impact the minority- and women-owned businesses that primarily serve the neighborhoods, temporarily close the local library branch, and vastly increase congestion and traffic in the area.

With the damning restraint of a practical legal expert, Saunders chastised the city in a statement on Tuesday, where she charged that “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.”

The case represents a landmark decision in New York, where rezoning almost always get approved. The respondents argued that while there is no current legal mandate that the environmental impact assessment account for race or ethnicity, Saunder’s decision implies that this ought to be a major consideration in the future. The decision could give a boost to local legislation, including legislation recently proposed by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, that aims to formally make race and ethnicity a major factor in environmental impact assessments.

Mayor de Blasio’s goal to introduce 300,000 affordable housing units by 2026 has induced a spurt of controversial rezoning decisions. In exchange for a small percentage of new affordable units, private contractors and luxury condominium developers are invited into low-income neighborhoods. The problem is that the impact of these new developments often goes beyond the obvious benefit of more affordable housing, often to the detriment of the low-income residents that the affordable units were meant to serve.

Although the rezoning process is rigorous and bureaucratic, there is a sentiment that despite all the hoops, rezoning applications almost always get approved—often despite the adamant opposition of a surrounding community. The decision in Upper Manhattan represents a tidal change for community members who often feel that their voices are overlooked. “I see it as a huge win for Inwood,” said Karla Fisk, a resident of and community advocate in Upper Manhattan. “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.”

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