Developer, activists square off on rezoning, industry distrust

TRD Talks episode featured Eli Weiss, Paloma Lara and Will Thomas

TRD New York /
Aug.August 07, 2020 07:30 AM


The fate of Inwood is up in the air as the state’s highest court mulls whether to hear a lawsuit challenging the neighborhood’s rezoning.

The rezoning, which would apply to 59 blocks in the Manhattan neighborhood, is one of many such actions that aim to lure housing developers with a density bonus.

But they inevitably fail to create housing that is affordable enough for existing residents, according to Paloma Lara, a member of Northern Manhattan is Not For Sale, the group leading opposition to the Inwood rezoning.

“Should we have to sell our communities to reach some level of investment?” Lara asked during a TRD Talks panel discussion Wednesday.

Her group has not given up on voiding Inwood’s rezoning after an appellate court unanimously reinstated it last month. The group must get court approval in order to appeal. Among other things, it argues that the city should have studied the racial impact of the Inwood rezoning.

“Our distrust of developers comes from the fact that they don’t value people. They value profit,” Lara said Wednesday. “They are not there to build for us.”

Joy Construction’s Eli Weiss, whose company — along with Maddd Equities — has proposed a 611-unit residential building at 3875 Ninth Avenue, said without the rezoning, no one will live there: His property is zoned for manufacturing. If the de Blasio administration loses the case, the property would likely be turned into an automated distribution center that employs about six people, he said, exaggerating for effect.

“If you’re saying that there’s such a level of distrust of me and the development community that you would prefer that [result], I think that is unfortunate,” he said to Lara.

He agreed with her that local and federal government should ensure deeper affordability in subsidized housing, noting that developers don’t set the income levels in such projects. Eligibility rules for apartments are tied to tax credits that make the developments economically feasible, he said.

He noted, however, that the city doesn’t have an “endless well of money” and nonprofits often lack financing to develop without partnering with private companies like his.

“Affordable housing, it is really hard. It’s like losing weight after 40,” he said. “There’s a ton of regulation. The math, on its face, doesn’t work.”

Lara suggested that the city buy Weiss’s Inwood parcel and let a community land trust build permanently affordable apartments for very low-income households. Weiss noted that condemning his land would be unconstitutional.

Although the two increasingly clashed as the webinar went on, the mere fact that they were communicating was a rare sign of progress in the city’s caustic debate on housing, which typically plays out in public hearings and courtrooms.

Wednesday’s panelists discussed the 12 neighborhoods, including Inwood, that Mayor Bill de Blasio targeted for rezoning in his Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program. Its focus has been on minority communities, which the administration says it because their City Council members welcomed rezonings, which generally is necessary for approval by the full chamber.

Will Thomas, a board member of pro-development group Open New York, said the city needs to change that dynamic. His organization has been pushing to rezone Gowanus and Soho, where local opposition has emerged.

“The implicit bargain is that low-income communities get investment with rezonings, and rich communities just get investment anyway,” he said. “Many times [wealthy areas] are just actively impeding growth in their communities. Obviously, that has to change.”

Write to Kathryn Brenzel at [email protected]


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