INWOOD, MANHATTAN — Disparities laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests against systemic racism were at the forefront of activists' minds Wednesday as their lawsuit to stop a controversial rezoning of Inwood headed to appeals court.
Advocates with Inwood Legal Action — the group suing the city to stop a rezoning of the largely minority neighborhood — asked Mayor Bill de Blasio to drop his appeal of the annulled rezoning plan by pointing to calls he made this week for racial equity in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.
Their request for the appeal to be dropped came just hours before it would face Appellate Court on Wednesday, the first court hearing since a lower court sided with the advocates in December.
“The Mayor says he cares deeply about racial inclusion and equity," Inwood Legal Action Co-Chair Cheryl Pahaham said, referring to de Blasio's comments Tuesday about his coronavirus taskforce on racial inclusion.
"So we ask him again to drop his appeal of Justice Verna Saunders’ historic annulment of the Inwood rezoning. We ask him to study the racial impact of the proposed rezoning and planned development on the Latinx, Black, and Asian people of Inwood."
The demand for a racial impact analysis of the rezoning, along with other studies, was at the center of the group's original legal challenge. It again took up much of the oral arguments for the appeal on Wednesday.
When Justice Verna Saunders' annulled the rezoning in December, she contended the city's environmental review process for it had failed to analyze several effects of the plan on neighborhood residents, including its impact on minority residents and businesses.
But the city, represented by Scott Shorr, argued again Wednesday that the environmental review process gives city agencies, not the public, discretion in what they do or don't analyze.
When asked about racial impact, Shorr said that question was answered through a study on whether the rezoning would displace residents.
"Once the determination was made that there was not going to be an adverse displacement effect for residential use, it did not make particular sense to demand that the city go further and do a racial impact analysis," he said.
The rezoning plan proposes upzoning large swaths of Inwood east of 10th Avenue to facilitate large-scale residential developments while rezoning areas west of 10th Avenue in an attempt to preserve the existing neighborhood's character.
Its supporters say it will create thousands of new units of affordable housing in the neighborhood.
But advocates contend similar claims have been made in past city rezonings, despite studies that show those plans largely displaced people of color.
"The issue of racial displacement was never studied by the city," attorney Michael Sussman said."The explanation is, 'We didn’t see an impact.' They didn’t look for an impact."
The Appellate Court panel of judges will either strike down or reaffirm Saunders' ruling, which sent the rezoning plan back to the city Economic Development Corporation and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development to study issues raised in Inwood Legal Action's Article 78 lawsuit.
The Inwood Rezoning was originally approved by City Council in 2018.