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Washington Heights and Inwood Planning and Land Use Study

At the close of 2004, members of Community Board 12-Manhattan (CB12) began to seek resources for conducting a neighborhood planning and land-use study covering all of Washington Heights and Inwood, the neighborhoods that makeup Northern Manhattan and comprise Community District 12 (CD12). After consultation with City agency represen­tatives and their elected officials, CB12 officers and committee chairs determined that a broad-based, district-wide planning study would help identify priorities and in establish­ing a consensus around a set of criteria for evaluating proposed and future development.

The City College Architecture Center. Directed by Ethan Cohen, with Rex L. Curry to produce a response to the RFP, won it, and work began. The following are links to the product of this work. The following requires the Adobe PDF reader.

Section 1 – Introduction, Methodology, Community Actors, and Past Findings |
Section 2 – Demographics, Practices, Housing, Community Needs, Facilities, and Potential Sites
Section 3 – Neighborhood History, Transportation, Topography, Parks/Open Space, Aerials and Photos, and Historic Preservation
Section 4 – Zoning Land Use and Development
Section 5 – Recommendations, Resources, and Resolutions
Section 0 – Short Version
MBPO Land Use 101 Presentation
Rezoning Presentation 04/07/2010
Rezoning Report

Examine CD12’s Race, Ethnicity, and Class

The study of the linkage between minority households and factors such as housing constraint and segregation, labor market opportunities, and regional employment decentralization establishes limited opportunity and mobility. People of Washington Heights and Inwood, where do you go from here?

Early twentieth-century housing policies encouraged de facto economic segregation. This contributed strongly to racial isolation but also contributed to relatively successful economic clusters. Imbalances in wealth is a subject separate from establishing the capacity to create and protect it from the onset. However, since the 1990s, changes leading to more successfully integrated (class/income/race) communities have been ongoing. There are two notable exceptions in Asian and Latino populations that require greater understanding and new policy. New York City is perhaps the most diverse city imaginable. Thus, the question of how language-based neighborhoods become more broadly functional in the larger society is a good question.

In effect, the process of “breaking out” from a localized economic model begins with families, small business formation, and remittances to home countries. The “economic multiplier” begins with the family. It involves extended social relationships that lead to savings clubs that can become credit unions and banks. Expanded reliance on the extended family helps to form structures of acknowledgment that become business partnerships. Cash sent home from wages or a business draws its capital from this capacity to internalize community development in “the family” and a neighborhood, but the policy point that needs to “sink in” is that both take a generation or two to develop, and it requires being “left alone” and that it is self-imposed on many levels.

The publication of the “Newest New Yorker” series by the Department of City Planning is evidence of the failure to move the dialogue beyond the obvious of who or where the “newest” live. The most recent immigration wave (Hispanic, Latino, and Asian) is born of civil lawsuits in the late 1960s that proved a pattern of discrimination in U.S. immigration policy. But this is the real point. The model of two to three generations of business and cultural development that re-builds places like the Lower East Side are now sliding into the world of myth. You can tell “bootstrap” stories. They would be true, but no one will believe them today — it must be a myth.

The need to invent new forms of action research in Washington Heights and Inwood is critical in New York City. Here, over 80% of the population is Latino, of which 70% is Dominican. This is important because we might bear witness to an enormous struggle to prevent a cultural disappearing act. The term Nos Quedamos defines this pressure as Project Remain, and We Stay. The question must be what will remain of the Latino experience during a period of continuing household impoverishment, slow economic growth, and declining real wages in Manhattan above 155th Street.


The negative effects of localized social, economic, and political diversity are overcome with a healthy sense of nationalism according to Robert Putnam’s highly disciplined research. This may be the case in general, but there are places that are “positioned” by more powerful social, economic, and political forces as containing “personas temporales” in Spanish or ??? in Chinese. In large cities such as New York, social solidarity allows strangers as the norm, in less diverse communities’, behaviors such as “sundown” towns become more likely. This positive/negative and jingoist/turncoat dichotomy is a two-way street.

Concisely, Putnam’s recent half-decade worth of research points to the global inevitability of diversity by pointing out its positives in a review of its negatives. His research has found that the more ethnically diverse the “neighborhood,” the less likely you are to trust your local storekeeper or dentist for that matter, regardless of his or her ethnicity. On the other hand, the more ethnically diverse the “city,” the more likely you are to develop relationships that transcend the neighborhood’s social or ethnic sense of security as a product of internal social solidarity. Given the positive of an economic multiplier that secures wealth in the family and the neighborhood, then the negatives of diversity (not trusting those outside the family or neighborhood) are more likely overcome by establishing a base upon which negotiations and creative exchanges are possible.

Debate on these measures by research specialists from the Community Service Society and others would yield a set of variables such as cost burden, business ownership, and property control ratios, median and per capita wages; job access and reverse commute figures, linguistic isolation, and so on. These measures would be selected and built up to define neighborhoods that can and should be given time. Time to organize, identify strategies, and implement programs coordinated well enough to establish a powerful base for targeted improvements in an internalized capacity to control investment rates, protect tenants, and build businesses. The objective is to defend against resident and labor force-displacement, whether or not it is compelled legally, illegally, and otherwise. When the constituency sought is, in effect, “new” every two to three years, it is nearly impossible to accomplish these purposes. On the other side of this coin lies the possibility of well-known urban pathologies such as gang-style resistance designed to “defend the block” from outsiders. These two are measures of grass-roots reaction to external threats that press down on the quality of life in the form of rapidly deteriorating building conditions, seasonal employment, and irrational, as well as, rational fear of immigration policies defined by “in or out” resident alien status that push people into a form of political invisibility.

Putnam’s research team’s intellectual rigor establishes strong controls for a wide range of factors such as poverty, residential mobility, and education to define measures of inequality. In a community such as Washington Heights and Inwood, Putnam’s term of “hunkering down” has value in its social solidarity production. In the short term, it provides a basis for increased diversity as a friendly force for building a modernizing society. Modernization is a proven asset for creative social exchange and economic growth. The central measure is, therefore, relatively blunt. In a place such as New York City, it would be unlikely to hear vitriol in a “them and us” debate, complemented with demands to conform to “our” way of life. It is more subtle here and wrapped up in economic models used to define the higher and better use of real estate, especially housing. In this sense, neighborhoods such as Washington Heights and Inwood, can if supported in doing so, in the time needed. The jargon used by Putnam defines a unique capacity to defend successfully against forces that would kill the formation of “bridging capital” that builds group-to-group interdependence, neighborhood-to-city relationships, and the “bonding capital” essential to healthy personal relationships.

Neighborhood Plan and Land Use Study (N:PLUS)

The New York City Community Preservation Corporation (CPC) began as a modest consortium of banks organized to make mortgage loans to rehabilitate apartment buildings in a risk pool. From 1975 to 1985, the CPC provided $61.8 million in rehabilitation financing for 155 buildings in Washington Heights. Today about 80 banks and insurance companies are involved as sponsors. Since its founding in 1974, CPC has financed more than 120,000 affordable housing units, investing over $5 billion. The point made here: CPC needs to do this again for a new ten-year commitment and comparable financing of roughly $320 million.

The housing stabilization achieved in Washington Heights through the loans and improvements to occupied buildings included rent restructuring and stabilization to make the financings possible. It brought the area to the point where projects without substantial subsidies, incentives, and benefits were included in the mix. Just 30 years later, the moderate rehabilitation question becomes an important part of this community’s history once again. Is the same partnership available today? Can new or equally effective programs bring the level of financial restructuring expertise to a community that continues to need it?

To establish a sense of the geographic distribution buildings with a significant number of violations are mapped with violations over 200 and over 500. The total comes to 246 buildings with serious violations based on HPD Anti-Abandonment Unit figures. Furthermore, the 2000 Census finds Upper Manhattan’s housing to be in worse condition when compared to neighborhoods throughout New York City. [i]

Effective housing policy starts with a sense of on-the-ground opportunity for development and preservation. The land use/building condition survey, combined with a review of data on building type, age, housing violations, incomes, and “rent-burden,” yielded the following overall observations on the prospects for preserving housing affordability in CD12.

CD12 maintains a high-grade housing stock that is physically capable of withstanding the stress of rehabilitation. The extensive bulk (square feet) makes replacement unlikely, given the current zoning. In effect, the 1961 zoning to R7-2 for most of the district was a down zone.

The rise in building code violations and complaint over the last five years is alarming. The issues are the quality of maintenance and management of the existing stock–and maintaining it as affordable.

The pre-war housing stock provides large and flexible apartment layouts that facilitate extended family, family friend, and guest living arrangements. Shared costs from food to rent, childcare, and small business development are effective means to survive that promote savings and the eventual building up of investment capital. CD12’s dense but flexible and affordable housing stock is, therefore, a wellspring for newcomers’ social and economic success.

The Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) measures the cost of operating a multi-unit apartment building in vital detail. As the decisions are now critical, an independent review of methods is long overdue. Nevertheless, a growing share of households (about 25%) experiences a severe rent burden[ii] in CD12. A key to preservation will be strong efforts to bring income up either directly or through income supplements such as food stamps, expanded rent subsidies, and 100% utilization of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Advocate for methods to reduce the cost to profit margin (or investor risk) by turning to rehabilitation as a key to a sustainable, affordable housing source. This policy is daunting exclusively because that renovation is less predictable than new construction. Often a gap exists between the costs of renovation and the resources available to finance the renovation. Strict building codes may impose additional costs by requiring new construction building standards. Other regulatory barriers that may make a project complicated include historic preservation regulations, environmental clearance, access provisions, citizen opposition, and conflicting codes – such as building code vs. fire code, making approval processes lengthy.

For years, the public market defined housing affordability as a charitable function within a competitive market. The cost of privately rented housing moves upward based on competition in the market and changes in operating costs and regulatory practices, including the expiration of incentives. On the other hand, the rent of other affordable housing embedded in the private stock will continue to move up based on the household’s ability to pay up to a point beyond which it becomes unadvisable. I will explain it.

Let us be clear: a person earning $125,000 would pay $3,000 a month using the 30% of income as the housing affordability figure. But, the household can know to shop for a wide range of vacant, readily available apartments in Manhattan’s upper-income market at $2,500. Opting for “affordable housing privileges” is not in his financial interest. The point is there are many neighborhoods where the market serves us well. But it is also a force that goes against the idea that we can all live together in that neighborhood (such as in CD12) with dignity regardless of our income. Imagine the reverse: 60% to 80% of the housing units are “means-tested”, but it is built attractive enough to attract 20% to 40% eager to pay whatever the market demands.

N: PLUS Alegría de Vida Project

Washington Heights and Inwood Community Board will monitor Columbia University’s Westside ambitions, define its institutional version of New York’s affordable housing crisis, and nervously seek zoning protections through Inclusionary Zoning and Quality Housing Programs. All of this will be found in the formal release of a 300-page description dubbed N: PLUS released in April 2007.

N: PLUS stands for Neighborhood Planning and Land Use Study. Its authors define it as a report to the community. While large in total, N: PLUS is designed as a digital baseline document. It seeks to attract a constituency for planning. It seeks the creation of a more lively board, one more interested in a new urban vision and “vida” than the bogged down drudgery of being the first rung on the public process ladder. This board wants to shred the sinking feeling that a con is in play all of the time. True or not, it is still a feeling. Having their own plan will, if nothing else, produce a basis for comparisons.

Based on research completed to date, the report makes thirty recommendations and describes eighteen “best practices” most useful to a volunteer group of community members. That is what is on the table now, but the digital component is busy seeking challenges to its own report. The facts are friendly; it is what they mean that creates dissemblers in the debate.

The board has a skeleton staff of three and a barebones budget of $200,000, the majority of which goes for meeting space, baseline operations, and its District Manager’s salary and benefits. This budget is the lowest per capita in the city.

From the viewpoint of Washington Heights or Inwood, Columbia University may seem too far away. How could changes all the way down past City College into the 120s produce problems this far uptown? This area is 155th Street through the 200s, so perhaps, the community is right. Columbia’s relationship with the residential community of Morningside and Hamilton Heights, Hamilton Grange, Manhattanville, and even St. Nicholas Terrace is a more like symbol of bad PR than a tangible threat. Columbia did drop its name from the 8 million square foot medical complex now modestly marketed as New York Presbyterian Hospital. Therefore, the supposition has become “better safe than sorry” in serving what some are now calling “upstate” Manhattan.


[i] The 2000 Census measures affordability and quality: (1) lacking complete plumbing facilities, (2) lacking complete kitchen facilities, (3) with 1.01 or more occupants per room, (4) selected monthly owner costs as a percentage of household income in 1999 greater than 30 percent, and (5) gross rent as a percentage of household income in 1999 greater than 30 percent.

[ii] On the rental side of the market, affordability pressures clearly grew. The median monthly contract rent increased from $831 to $900 (after adjusting for inflation), and the median share of income spent on rent by New York City renters (the median rent burden) rose from 28.6 percent in 2002 to 31.2 percent in 2005. These numbers suggest that rents represent a significant strain for many households, especially those at the low end of the income spectrum who are not fortunate enough to live in subsidized housing. Among unsubsidized, low-income renters, the median share of income spent on rent rose to over 50 percent in 2005, up from 43.9 percent in 2002. Surprisingly, perhaps, the share of unsubsidized, low-income renter households that live in severely crowded housing actually fell during this period from 5.3 percent in 2002 to 4.8 percent in 2005. (State of City 2005, Furman Center)

Why Plan for CD12 Washington Heights and Inwood?

Examine Washington Heights and Inwood as part of a Working Group.

The community district board communicates issues and concerns to the city’s major agencies and service providers. In this it is effective.

Less well known, is its ability to produce systemic change.

The City College Architecture Center recently produced a research project for Community Board 12. A set of maps show places, but a set of database backed geographic information system images (GIS) can show how property is developing in CD12 now and into the future.

It is an evaluation tool for urban design, community planning and of course, real estate investment analysis. For the purpose of community-based planning and research this resource is use to define two crucial community values.

  • The first is to discover and encourage development for economic growth and;
  • The second is to provide the community with what it needs today, as it is today.

The first value is easy, let the private sector do what it does to grow, the second one on on the other hand is more difficult as business growth and our personal or community development are not as compatible as we would prefer.

So Why Plan? Why a Working Group?

  1. Planning produces ideas that can turn what you think is probable or possible into what is preferred.
  2. From these visions, an effective and timely response to a central question is made: What is important now?
  3. Producing public energy for planning makes solving today’s problems today possible.

A place for this and all of the information needed has begun to develop. Go to has all of the heavy docs. Monitor, don’t download yet, and get back to us using this web resource and this blog CD12

Many subjects are possible to develop on on the change in zoning for Inwood has begun with very short descriptions of all the “Special Districts” developed in New York City over the years.
In closing, something that Margaret Mead said is useful now. “Never doubt that small groups of people change the world. It is the only way it ever has…”

What Makes CD12 Unique?

Special Purpose District Zoning codifies incentives for development with the preservation of highly valued or unique elements that enhance urban living. For example, the scenic view easement is a zoning designation that protects NYC’s extraordinary view corridors across great distances of the urban landscape. Huge sections of Washington Heights and Inwood look outward across the Hudson or into the Bronx that should be highly valued. If tall buildings are built, a portion of this view “windfall” should go to adjacent property owners with the inclusion of affordable housing. This is not a new idea, it is why Grand Central Terminal remains and the buildings around it are much taller. What is the difference between this “solution”, and one that “exacts” the cash value of a view of the Hudson in trade for stabilized affordable housing?

If and when things like this happen, “Who Cuts the Deal?”

Setting a successful climate for zoning change negotiations comes in one of two forms, 1) the Community Benefits Agreement, also definable in some instances as a Good Neighbor Agreement or development disposition agreement with a single site and developer, and 2) the Memorandum of Understanding. Both require corporate entities as signatories to an economic formula based on sharing or dividing a set of anticipated resources and revenues. The product of the formula is at its best when it is economically self-renewing and includes an immediate “payout” often in the form of a tangible capital improvement. A pre-defined set of services, as well as, a general outline of the baseline responsibilities of signatories produces minimum and maximum “upset” figures.

Washington Heights and Inwood should start talking about the kind of corporate entity required to conduct negotiations coupled with the quality of governance needed.

Public Partnership: Add TIF to Inclusionary Zoning

Programs such as tax increment financing (TIF) pledges the increase in real property taxes to pay the costs of associated public investment. For example, if a housing development project will generate $10 million in additional tax each year, that $10 million is pledged for the same period required to cover a $100 million bond to secure a housing trust fund for a community district. In other words, zoning changes the taxable basis and it can be altered as an incentive to act, with resources prevent, or mitigate damage.

Looking for ideas on how this could happen?

This is an “either/or” condition for all Manhattan real estate. Either it is full market rate, leading to tax increment bond financing for local housing affordability programs, or it is fully stabilized with a permanent stock of affordable housing providing a minumum of 20% of units or with bonus floor area more based on local need and AMI.

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