When the de Blasio administration carried out its rezoning of Inwood earlier this year, local residents strenuously protested, even occupying Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez’s office to warn that allowing taller construction could displace existing tenants. But at the same time as neighborhood advocates were complaining that city officials were turning a blind eye to their concerns about the plan, it turns out, for-profit developers had regular communications access to the city-controlled agency that led the rezoning efforts — and many of their requests were later incorporated into the city’s final plan.
Emails from December 2016 through just before the city council vote in August 2018, obtained by Gothamist via a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request, show that developers Taconic Investments Partners LLC and their paid lobbyists were able to call and meet frequently with officials from the New York City Economic Development Corporation, a quasi-governmental organization whose president is appointed by the mayor. In many instances, they advocated for specific zoning codes, coordinated strategies with the EDC for selling the rezoning at public hearings, and shared design plans.
Much of what the developers advocated for ended up in the final rezoning plan, including helping relocate businesses that stood in the way of a planned project, and allowing for larger-sized retail businesses on the ground floor of Taconic’s development.
Emails from Taconic and the EDC show coordination as early as December 2016 to get residents on board for a neighborhood-wide rezoning.
With the subject line “Taconic outreach in Inwood,” EDC assistant vice president for government and community relations Charlie Samboy advised Taconic officials on December 22nd, 2016 on how to coordinate solicitation of public feedback on a planned development at the site of a former Pathmark on West 207th Street. “I believe it’s important we approach key folks carefully and communicate a level of awareness of each other’s plans,” wrote Samboy, who provided a list of community groups for Taconic to meet with, and in a subsequent email warned of fallout from talking with Inwood residents who were against the rezoning.
“[P]lease be aware that [the Church of St. Jude] likely have a relationship with Centro Altagracia, an organization that has very strong working relationship with Northern Manhattan is Not for Sale and other similar groups. I say this to highlight that there is likely to be a snowball effect in terms of interest in your project and the attention it garners as you begin to meet with certain groups and socialize your intensions [sic],” wrote Samboy to the developers.
Taconic owned a large undeveloped property in Inwood before the rezoning passed and spent $190,000 lobbying the EDC from 2016 to 2018, according to city lobbying records. Taconic acquired the Pathmark site in 2016.
Taconic advocated for the previously industrial-zoned, southeastern portion of Inwood, which included its newly acquired site, to be upzoned to allow mixed-use apartments, according to emails.
The Inwood rezoning was the fifth rezoning of the de Blasio administration, after City Hall undertook a seven-month public review process that was fraught with significant community pushback. Last month, a coalition of Inwood neighborhood groups announced a lawsuit against the city over the rezoning, charging that officials had failed to adequately assess its likely impact in displacing current residents.
When asked if developers with stakes in the rezoning received preferential treatment, EDC spokesperson Shavone Williams replied, “As with any neighborhood rezoning, EDC engaged property owners to explain the initiative and solicit feedback from people that stand to be directly affected. Over the course of the three years, we communicated frequently with a diverse range of stakeholders,” amounting to 3,000 residents in total.
Advocates allege that the Inwood rezoning process felt like major decisions were already made before the plan even went up for public review. With the large Pathmark site in mind, executives and lobbyists for Taconic were able to hash out specific zoning codes and share studies with the EDC before the rezoning entered into Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) in January 2018, according to emails.
Taconic’s VP George Tsapelas and lobbyist Richard Barth negotiated with Meagher and Kushner on rezoning a plot of land so that Taconic could relocate local businesses to there in order to clear space for its planned development, expanding zoning codes for higher buildings, and allowing larger-sized businesses to operate on the ground floor of their development, according to emails. These negotiations began before any hearings during ULURP and continued until ULURP finished.
“The City may spend years preparing for a given action, including generous outreach to property owners. Unfortunately, the broader community is often the last to know,” said Tara Kelly, VP of Policy and Programs at The Municipal Art Society of New York.
The EDC and the developers continued these conversations during the public comment period where groups could propose changes to amend the original rezoning proposal.
Tsapelas was able to reach out to Meagher to clear his comments to make sure they were on the same page, a luxury members of the community said they did not get.
“I just wanted to see if you had some time to get together later this week or early next week so we can discuss our response to the public scoping before we formally submit,” wrote Tsapelas on September 2017.
Meagher responded shortly after that the EDC would be “happy to talk through your comments.” The specific changes Taconic asked for were ultimately added to the EDC’s Final Environmental Impact Statement.
“We had no conversations like this where they were this responsive,” says Graham Ciraulo of Northern Manhattan Not For Sale, which helped produce a counter-rezoning plan made by members of the community that was released during ULURP.
Titled the Uptown United Platform, the plan would have required that all upzoned land and all housing east of 10th Avenue must be 100 percent affordable. It also asked for a special “Commercial U” district along Dyckman Street, Broadway, and 207th Street to protect businesses owned by minorities and women.
Neither of these items — nor other elements such as contextual rezoning to preserve the character of the neighborhood or new community-controlled housing — made it into the final rezoning, though the city did eliminate a planned upzoning of the Commercial U. Ciraulo says “little or nothing” from the Uptown United Platform was ultimately implemented by the city.
After the Platform was released in February, Ciraulo says Samboy from the EDC contacted him once for clarification on a few points on the plan, but that was it.
“The way that this all functions . . . they’re almost like lobbyists for the city,” said Oglivie of EDC officials, pushing for another de Blasio administration rezoning. Oglivie charged that the EDC asked for public input and when they got it in the form of the Uptown United Platform, “they ignored it.”
A slide from Taconic’s Inwood rezoning study (Gothamist)
After the Inwood rezoning plan entered ULURP, the proposal was debated in front of the local community board, at a hearing hosted by the borough president, and in front of the City Planning Commission (CPC). The CPC needed to approve the application before it went ahead to the final stages ahead of the City Council.
Before the CPC hearing in May 2018, George Tsapelas, VP of Taconic, wrote to EDC officials and other developers to alert them to what members of Taconic were going to say in advance.
“I just wanted to touch base with you to coordinate our testimony at the hearing on Wednesday,” wrote Tsapelas. “Per our conversation last week Charlie and I both plan to testify.” Taconic president Charles Bendit, Tsapelas noted, would explain that the company acquired the Pathmark site because it “[s]aw the opportunity for a vibrant neighborhood that could be brought together by the waterfront plan.” Other planned talking points included highlighting past projects with “successful” affordable housing commitments, such as a $330 million development in Hell’s Kitchen with 80 affordable housing units among its 392, many luxury, apartments.
Richard Barth, a lobbyist employed by Taconic, was in regular contact with EDC officials as well. A few weeks before the CPC hearing, he wrote: “With the upcoming hearing on May 9, it would be helpful to touch base in the early part of next week to discuss how we can be most supportive of the rezoning at the public hearing. Would you like to schedule a call?”
Adam Meagher, VP of Development for the EDC, responded not long after.
“Yes, let’s discuss. Looping Charlie, who is point on our public hearing prep, to arrange a call,” wrote Meagher in an April 26th email.
Mitchell Korbey, a former staffer at the Department of City Planning who is currently partner at Herrick Feinstein LLP and chair of the firm’s Land Use & Zoning Group, says it’s not unusual in rezonings for city officials and developers to coordinate around specific properties. On coordination between developers and a city organization in planning public messaging, Korbey is less sure.
“I haven’t seen that,” said Korbey, arguing that city officials should only base talking points off of conversations with all invested parties in Inwood, not just a select few.
Even if it’s standard procedure for city officials to speak to interested developers in the course of developing a rezoning, say advocates for neighborhood groups, it points to the access gap between powerful landowners and residents.
Ayisha Oglivie, Chair of Housing and Human Services in Manhattan’s Community Board 12, which oversaw the rezoning, said she received at least 100 emails from the EDC regarding the rezoning over the course of two years. She said the emails were only “thank you for comings” “in case you missed it,” along with planning for appearances in front of the community board.
Taconic’s Pathmark site has the capacity for 700 apartment units and is required to include at least 175 affordable units as part of the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) program. Taconic did not respond to our request for comment on this story, nor a request for clarification on how many affordable units would be built at the Pathmark site.
“The city could have worked with Taconic to do better levels of affordability,” said Ava Farkas, Executive Director of the Met Council on Housing. “Without including the community with this kind of planning, there was a missed opportunity for the [de Blasio] administration.”
Farkas said the fact that there are still no official numbers on affordability from Taconic’s site is evident of how the city “failed” to use its leverage. Active in Inwood during the rezoning, she said her group had only one meeting with the EDC and no meetings with Taconic.
A spokesperson for Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez’s office did not directly respond to queries from Gothamist, instead pointing to the statement the councilmember released after the Inwood neighborhood groups announced their lawsuit. In that, Rodriguez said, “When it comes to the housing crisis, this is the first time we'll see thousands of affordable apartments built for low-income, working class individuals where Inwood residents will receive guaranteed preference to rent the new affordable units.”
The EDC has helped facilitate rezonings for the de Blasio administration, including the construction of a tech center on 14th street, which passed the City Council in August 2018. Advocates on the Lower East Side say that they only heard from the EDC at public hearings and were not a part of planning before the proposal came out.
“They did absolutely zero outreach to us or any of the other groups who had concerns about housing in the rezoning plan. Literally zero,” said Andrew Berman, Executive Director of The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
Much like Northern Manhattan Is Not for Sale, Berman’s group advocated for housing protections to be put in place alongside the rezoning for the tech center. Developers for the tech center, who employed the same lobbyists as Taconic, were able to secure an upzoning for the project after pitching it to the EDC. Housing protections to the scale Berman’s group called for were not included in the rezoning.
Some experts argue that there will always be an irreconcilable conflict in neighborhood rezonings involving the EDC because the city agency is cut from the same cloth as property owners and developers.
“When EDC becomes the lead sponsor of rezonings, as with the Inwood rezoning, it signals a more direct connection between real estate development and rezoning,” said Thomas Angotti, Hunter College professor and author of Zoned Out! Race, Displacement, and City Planning in New York City.
“There’s certainly not that same level of agreeability” for community members, says Chris Walters, rezoning assistance coordinator for the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development. “The city is generally very resistant to most of the community’s demands. Especially, anything that you think would be limiting development and options for developers.”
Since the Inwood rezoning passed the City Council in August 2018, the upper Manhattan neighborhood which was previously known for its affordability is seeing development outside of the city’s plans. On the emails between developers and the EDC, neighborhood advocates argue it is an example of a flawed land use process.
“If they are this responsive to developers and are willing to consider ideas and presentation for Taconic but there’s no evidence they even opened the document for us…it says a lot about who these rezonings are for,” Ciraulo observes.