Roughly one year after a bitterly contested rezoning, city officials on Tuesday held an elaborate press conference touting what they said would be over $200 million worth of investment in Inwood.
Spearheaded by the city’s Economic Development Corporation, the press event was billed as an update on the progress of the so-called Inwood Action Plan. The city assembled a phalanx of elected and appointed officials, including Council member Ydanis Rodriguez, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Deputy Mayor Vicki Been and EDC's president and CEO, James Patchett. Also present were staff members of city agencies from planning to parks to housing preservation and development.
But community members criticized the event as being a public relations stunt, with little new information and a lack of involvement from residents.
To begin with, critics pounced on the fact that the press conference was held in Washington Heights as opposed to Inwood, and that community groups were not informed about it.
"If this was an update on the Inwood action plan, why wasn’t it in Inwood?" said Paul Epstein, 70, an Inwood resident who is a member of Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale, one of the groups that has sued the city to overturn the zoning.
Epstein, who attended the press conference, added: “It was a show and tell."
On Twitter, at least two people used the hashtag #Fakenews to describe the press conference.
Asked about the location, a spokesperson for Rodriguez said the council member decided to hold the press conference at Gregorio Luperon High School for Science and Mathematics, which is on 165th Street, because it is one of the schools in his district that he has lobbied for the city to invest in.
While the location was curious to some, so was the timing. The press conference occurred about a week after a New York Times story about Inwood and the concerns that its rezoning has spurred redevelopment and gentrification in a neighborhood long considered the last bastion of affordability in Manhattan. The median asking rent in Inwood is $2,025, up five percent from last year, according to Streeteasy's most recent report. The Times story said that about 80 percent of apartments in Inwood are currently under some form of rent regulation.
The scale of the city's investment has been considered unprecedented and a sign of the intense resistance to the plan. As part of the rezoning agreement, the city has agreed to build at least 4,100 affordable apartments and several public investments including an immigrant research and performing arts center, a new library branch, $50 million in new STEM and robotics programming as well as a new school at the George Washington Educational Campus, and a pair of parks along the Harlem River.
During his remarks, Rodriguez alluded to the criticisms.
"Nothing is perfect," he said. "This is about moving a society to a better place."
Following Rodriguez, officials stepped up to the podium one by one to deliver progress reports, ranging from the preservation of nearly 1,000 units of housing in the neighborhood to beginning the selection process for an operator for the immigrant cultural center.
But for opponents of the plan, the news felt incremental at best. Some accused EDC officials of bundling in projects that either have nothing to do with Inwood or the rezoning. The city, for example, on Tuesday promoted its progress on upgrades to Highbridge Park, which is located in Washington Heights, and which was initially misspelled as Highland Park in an EDC tweet.
Another frequently mentioned Inwood initiative, the completion of Dyckman Green Gym, was the result of participatory budgeting in 2015, not the rezoning, according to opponents.
A spokesperson for the EDC, a quasi-public agency, did not respond to a request for comment.
Ava Farkas, the executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, called Tuesday’s event especially disappointing given the lack of any update on the city’s pledge to make two city-owned sites, a Department of Transportation Bridge Repair facility and a sanitation garage, available for new affordable housing.
“I think it reinforces the distrust that the community has and the feeling that this is not a plan for them,” she said.
The fifth rezoning under the de Blasio administration, the Inwood plan has sparked great suspicion within the neighborhood about the role of developers. Community and preservation groups are currently awaiting a decision on a lawsuit they filed in state Supreme Court last year to overturn the city's rezoning. Michael Sussman, the attorney for the Inwood groups, has argued that the city conspired with real estate interests to rezone Inwood.
On Tuesday he cited an analysis by the Times that found that since the rezoning plan was announced in 2013, real estate investors have purchased more than $610 million in properties in the neighborhood.
Back in January, Gothamist reported that emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request that showed that one of the main developers, Taconic Investments Partners, and its lobbyists were in frequent communication and coordination with officials from EDC.
Sussman believes the evidence contradicts the city's argument that the rezoning will benefit the largely working class and immigrant community in Inwood. "You have a totally fabricated narrative of how the intent of this is to help [the community]," Sussman said.