Inwood Watches Closely as New Zoning Kicks In
With the lawsuits settled in favor of change in Inwood, developers have begun nosing into the middle-class northern Manhattan enclave, intent on …
With the lawsuits settled in favor of change in Inwood, developers have begun nosing into the middle-class northern Manhattan enclave, intent on putting up tall new buildings where they were not permitted before.
Since last fall, when New York’s top court greenlighted a sweeping rezoning of the area, builders have acquired a half-dozen redevelopment sites. At the same time, a handful of projects that were put on hold for years while a lawsuit to halt the rezoning wound its way through courts, have recently snapped back to life.
Many of the new projects contain unusually large amounts of affordable housing, which could allay fears about Inwood’s becoming New York’s latest bastion of luxury. And the arrival of developers has been more of a trickle than a flood, at least for now.
But opponents still worry that just like in reinvented areas like Hudson Yards, the rezoning has opened the door to gentrification whether if it happens immediately or not.
“I moved to this area for the character of the neighborhood,” said Robert Kleinbardt, the owner of the real estate firm New Heights Realty and a 31-year resident. “And while the rezoning might be good for me financially, the last thing I want to see is a Pottery Barn or Bed Bath & Beyond up here.”
So far, big-box stores are not present in Inwood, which is wedged north of Dyckman Street between the Hudson and Harlem Rivers.
But in round one of the latest development, builders have taken steps to install apartment buildings and schools on the former sites of auto-body shops, supermarkets and even a public library, though it will be replaced.
All of the lots are on the 59 blocks rezoned in 2018 to generally allow for bigger buildings and different uses.
The most significant changes will occur east of 10th Avenue by the Harlem River, where low-slung warehouses can now give way to 30-story towers. Other major makeovers may happen along 10th Avenue near Broadway, where apartments are able to replace automotive businesses. Not included in the rezoning are the blocks lined with prewar apartment houses west of Broadway.
The projects that are restarting first are mostly residential, like Sherman Creek North Cove, a 30-story, 611-unit complex rising from a former parking lot on West 207th next to a subway yard.
In 2015, as city officials were showing an interest in rezoning Inwood, the co-developers Maddd Equities and Joy Construction bought a stake in the property for $4.3 million. In August 2018, a few weeks after the city approved the zoning, excavations began.
But in December of that year, a group of nonprofits and neighbors who got together and called themselves, “Northern Manhattan Is Not for Sale,” sued to undo the new rules, saying the city “failed to take a hard look at critical and likely impacts” like increased traffic, evictions and shuttered restaurants. Construction came to a halt; a half-finished foundation sits there today.
Frustrated, the developers said they considered putting a warehouse on the site. As it is, the three-year delay has hiked costs on the $300 million project by $5 million.
Yet Eli Weiss, a principal at Joy who once worked in city government, said he understands how rezonings can be lightning rods for controversy. “They translate as change and possibly gentrification, and certainly for the last 30 years, there has been gentrification around rezonings,” Mr. Weiss said.
But Inwood should give his project a chance, he said. Every unit in the building, from studios to three-bedrooms, will be offered at below-market-rate rents, unlike at most ground-up projects, where the affordable part is usually at least 25 percent of the units. Still, going all in on affordable housing also qualifies the project for a direct subsidy from the city, possibly to the tune of $60 million, he added.
“When you get to the reality playing out with my project, you realize what a rezoning should accomplish,” Mr. Weiss said.
The project, whose wavy brick facade is by Aufgang Architects, which has also designed luxury condos, will also have two gyms, a roof deck and a parking garage. Also, as part of the rezoning, the city has promised to build a ribbon of parkland along the Harlem’s banks and under the University Heights Bridge, next door to the project.
Across the street, another once-moribund high-rise has also been exhumed. At 410 West 207th Street, a former Pathmark grocery store with a sprawling parking lot is being turned into a 690-unit residential development from a team led by Taconic Partners.
Taconic, which closed on its $24.6 million stake soon after the area’s zoning changed, was this August given the go-ahead by Building Department officials to begin demolitions. The project is set to open in 2025. One partner, Arnold Gumowitz, an investor with holdings on the Upper West Side and Midtown who controls the project’s ground lease, paid $9.5 million for the site in 2013, according to a deed.
Similarly, wrecking balls this spring leveled Inwood’s beige-brick library at 4790 Broadway to make way for the Eliza, a 14-story, 174-unit tower expected to open in 2023. The $100 million project, which is being built by the city on public land using subsidies, is an all-affordable project like Sherman Creek North Cove.
The building will be geared toward formerly homeless people and families making less than $26,000 a year. A library slightly larger than the one that was razed will occupy lower floors, along with a prekindergarten and other community space.
Until 2018, development was rare in Inwood. Condos are almost nonexistent. But the city saw untapped potential and has promised 3,900 new apartments, 2,600 of which will be affordable, according to planning documents. The neighborhood would also see a $200 million grab bag of public investments, including schools, two new waterfront parks and improved intersections along busy Tenth Avenue.
The area, which is largely Dominican, is considered one of Manhattan’s least-expensive areas. In its suit, the group “Northern Manhattan Is Not for Sale,” highlighted individuals who would suffer if swaths of the neighborhood were to change.
Among them was a Luis Almonte, who since 2011 has owned St. Teresa Pharmacy, a business serving mostly Dominican customers at 10th Avenue and West 206th Street. In the suit, Almonte said he was worried his landlord would sell his one-story building upon rezoning, though that does not seem to have happened yet. Repeated calls to the pharmacy for Mr. Almonte were not returned.
But the opponents of the plans were almost victorious. In December 2019, Verna Saunders, a New York Supreme Court Justice, agreed with the challengers and nullified the rezoning, writing that the city “failed to take a hard look at the relevant areas of concern identified by the public,” according to her decision. It’s the only time a New York rezoning has been shot down by the courts, lawyers say.
But it didn’t last long. In July 2020, the Appellate Division of the New York’s Supreme Court reversed Justice Saunders’ decision in a 5-to-0 vote. And a last-ditch effort to have the state’s Court of Appeals settle the matter was unsuccessful.
Some may heartened by the decision. In May of this year, L + M Development Partners, a major firm with projects across the region, bought a 20,000-square-foot parking lot on Ninth Avenue, at West 207th, for $7.2 million for the site, according to city records. L + M will fold the site into the Taconic parcel next-door that’s adding 690 apartments, and partner with Taconic on the project, according to a spokesman, who had no further details.
But not all the interest is about housing. At 400 West 219th Street, at Ninth Avenue, the developer Peter Fine is planning an eight-story charter school, records show, on a site that since the 1950s has held an auto-repair shop, one of many in Inwood.
Sophia Bishkoff, an owner of the repair shop, which is called A 1 All German Car, said she received almost two-dozen offers for her property. “People were calling every day, coming off the street,” she said.
In the end, Ms. Bishkoff, who bought the property in 2000 for $1 million, records show, sold it this spring $16 million. As of March, her shop, which services BMWs and Audis, lives on in Port Chester, N.Y.
Activity in the real estate market is decent, brokers say. From January to June of this year, Inwood saw $75.3 million in building sales, in five transactions, most of them for development sites, according to Ariel Property Advisors, a commercial real-estate firm.
In comparison, in the same period in 2019 — soon after the neighborhood adopted its new zoning, but also after opponents sued to block it — there were $12.9 million in two transactions, Ariel said. (Covid-19 put a huge damper on activity in the years between, according to the data.)
But there have been stumbles. Brokers say an affordable housing requirement of at least 25 percent of a project on rezoned blocks is killing some deals.
On Broadway at West 218th Street, a pair of side-by-side sites, one of them with a longtime doughnut shop, was listed for sale in October 2020 but had no takers at $10.5 million, said Brian Whelan, a director at B6 Real Estate Advisors, the firm marketing the property.
So Mr. Whelan decided to market the parcels separately, which seemed to do the trick. The one with the doughnut shop, Twin Donut, is now in contract to be sold this fall, he said. The property, whose last asking price was $3.8 million, will likely remain retail. The adjacent parking lot will be listed for sale once the market improves, he added.
“Once the dust settles with Covid, we will take another stab at it,” Mr. Whelan said.
In the meantime, opponents may take a measure of solace that their work has focused a spotlight on some unintended effects of community planning. In June, the City Council passed a “racial equity” bill that would force some developers to look at up to two years of displacement trends and other affects of gentrification before breaking ground.
“In a way, the city won the battle and lost the war,” said Frank Chaney, a land-use attorney with the firm Rosenberg & Estis who’s not affiliated with any Inwood projects. “But it probably won’t be the end of life on earth as we know it.”
For weekly email updates on residential real estate news, sign up here. Follow us on Twitter: @nytrealestate.