The Real Reasons Why Inwood Killed Sherman Plaza

Since the City Council’s decision Aug. 16 to reject Acadia Realty Trust’s application to rezone 4650 Broadway, also known as Sherman Plaza, the community of Inwood has become a focus of ire for New York City’s power brokers. The project’s top political backer, Mayor Bill de Blasio, has responded by creating a meme that goes something like this: The “misinformed” residents of Inwood “irrationally” forced the Council to block a development that would have allocated 50 percent of units as “affordable,” and that their rejection will now result in a building that will be 100 percent luxury.

The Mayor’s “50 percent affordable” meme is being used to denigrate the residents of Inwood and hide the flaws in his widely unpopular Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) program. But as always, the devil is in the details, so let’s take a closer look:

Acadia agreed to choose an MIH affordability option that would designate 20 percent of apartments as “permanently affordable” for families of three making 40 percent of the federally determined Area Median Income (AMI) for the metropolitan region. In other words, 20 percent of the apartments would have been available to families making about $32,600, which is roughly the median income for Inwood. However, if the zoning had been approved, the developer could have exploited a loophole in the program and switch to a more expensive affordability option; 30 percent of apartments reserved for families making 80 percent AMI, or $65,200. That would have effectively priced out the majority of Inwood residents. 

That was the “deeply affordable” portion of the proposal. To reach the 50 percent benchmark, Acadia claimed it would designate an additional 30 percent of apartments as “affordable.” But those apartments would have been affordable only to people with incomes significantly above the neighborhood median. As per the developer’s own testimony before the Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises: 10 percent would have been for families earning 60 percent of AMI ($49,000). and 20 percent for families making 110 to 135 percent of AMI ($90,000–$110,000).

So we asked, when a third of our community earns less than 30 percent of AMI, $24,000 a year, how could this be considered “affordable” housing? We never received a satisfactory answer. What’s more, a representative from Acadia testified at that same hearing that they would have to wait until the financing came through before those affordability levels could be guaranteed. 

There’s the rub: No agreement beyond the 20 to 30 percent of units mandated by MIH could have been enforced through rezoning. After receiving the rezoning approval, Acadia could have simply backtracked on its promises of additional affordable units, free community space, and even on its commitment to restrict the height to 15 stories (the rezoning would allow up to 17 stories). Or Arcadia could have simply flipped the property, which is essentially what happened with the Rheingold development in Bushwick. In that case, the developer was granted a rezoning after making a litany of promises to the local Councilmember, but then sold the property to another developer who tossed all promises out the window. Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez rightly cited this incident as a primary reason for rejecting the 4650 Broadway rezoning. 

So what about that 100 percent luxury tower the Mayor says will be constructed “as of right?” We say, not so fast. First, “as of right” developments are particularly difficult to put up in Northern Manhattan, because site conditions (decrepit infrastructure, environmental hazards, etc.) significantly raise the cost of construction. Without another subsidy program, the developer will find it very difficult to finance this project. The most recent residential development in Inwood, The Stack, included affordable units through the 421-a subsidy program; any future development of 4650 Broadway is likely to do the same should that program be reinstated. 

Inwood residents, as well as organizations from across the city, recognize the negative impact that an irresponsible development will have on our parks, environment, infrastructure, and affordable units in the neighborhood. We will continue to advocate for a better proposal, one where the community will benefit directly from publically subsidized development. 

Like the majority of Inwood residents, we welcome the opportunity for responsible development in our neighborhood. But Sherman Plaza was a terrible proposal, with or without “affordable housing.” We only hope that its defeat in the Council serves as a lesson to developers who try to use MIH to exploit our communities.

 

Graham Ciraulo is an organizer with the Northern Manhattan is Not for Sale Coalition. He lives in Inwood.