Developers call Inwood ruling another blow in war against them

Stunning annulment of rezoning threatens affordable housing, builders say

From left: Taconic Investment Partners' Charles Bendit,  Maddd Equities' Jorge Madruga and Slate Property Group's David Schwartz
From left: Taconic Investment Partners' Charles Bendit, Maddd Equities' Jorge Madruga and Slate Property Group's David Schwartz

Developers say a judge’s ruling last week against the Inwood rezoning was a stunning example of why they feel under attack by New Yorkers.

In a decision that surprised even its supporters, New York Supreme Court Justice Verna Saunders overturned the rezoning Thursday, assailing the city’s review process for not considering the potential socioeconomic impact of the rezoning. The development community was horrified.

“I was so shocked by the annulment because, if you think about it, this went through a public review process,” said Taconic Investment Partners co-CEO Charlie Bendit. “The community board had comments. The borough president had comments. Even before the zoning was certified, there were comments, and there were changes made — which, by the way, were changed again at the City Council.”

Taconic had aggressively lobbied for the rezoning to pass and has been planning one of the largest projects in the neighborhood. The mixed-use development at 410 207th Street would be about 700,000 square feet and include 700 units of housing and 80,000 square feet of ground-floor retail.

Bendit said Taconic’s plans for the site remain unchanged despite the judge’s ruling, which he expects to be overturned on appeal — an action the New York City Law Department said it would take.

“We’re not going to [change the project] yet,” Bendit said. “I believe that, on appeal, [the judge’s decision] will be overturned because I don’t think there was substance to the ruling.”

Bendit told Crain’s that the delay caused by the court case would make his project more expensive, which could result in higher rents.

The other major project planning to use Inwood’s new zoning is from Jorge Madruga’s Maddd Equities and Eli Weiss’ Joy Construction. The partners pre-filed plans with the Department of Buildings in August for a 30-story, 544,000-square-foot project with 611 residential units and about 62,000 square feet of commercial space at 3875 Ninth Avenue.

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They are thinking a bit more seriously than Bendit about making changes to their project, although the team would much rather stick to their original plan, according to Weiss.

“We did hope to build affordable housing,” he said. “We still hope to build affordable housing.”

But if the rezoning is not restored, they may build an industrial or manufacturing project instead, according to Weiss.

“One way or another, we’ll have to work within the parameters that we’re left with,” he said.

Even developers who do not have active projects in the rezoning area were taken aback by the judge’s decision, a rare reversal that Slate Property Group’s David Schwartz said comes as the public’s perception of developers is “worse than ever.”

“There is a lot of anti-development sentiment,” Schwartz said. “Unfortunately, the only way to build affordable housing and house the homeless is through development.”

Legal experts say such a challenge to a rezoning has not been successful in at least three decades. Saunders’ decision, according to Kenneth Fisher, an attorney at Cozen O’Connor and former City Council member, was a “bridge too far,” in part because it does not give the government the benefit of the doubt when determining if it took a hard look at concerns raised by the community.

“The [law] doesn’t require that anything anyone raises at a meeting has to be considered simply because it’s raised,” said Fisher. “People would be standing up and asking that they study the impact of rezoning on tides or every butterfly fluttering.”