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Real Estate Lobbyists Linked to Rivington House Behind Inwood Rezoning Push

 Although the Inwood NYC Planning Initiative has been stalled since July 2016, residents say controversial lobbying group is looking to revitalize the project again.
Although the Inwood NYC Planning Initiative has been stalled since July 2016, residents say controversial lobbying group is looking to revitalize the project again.
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DNAinfo/Carolina Pichardo

INWOOD — A controversial lobbyist with ties to the Rivington House debacle has been barraging the neighborhood with calls on behalf of a developer in a bid to rekindle a dormant city rezoning plan for the neighborhood, DNAinfo New York has learned.

Capalino + Company — a key player in the controversial Rivington House deed switch that turned a Lower East Side AIDS hospice facility into a luxury condo development this past year — and Taconic Investment Partners, which purchased the former Pathmark lot on 410 W. 207th Street early last year, have been behind an effort to jump-start a project to rezone uptown.

The Inwood rezoning project, better known as the Inwood NYC Neighborhood Study, is the city's Economic Development Corporation's plan to rezone streets north of Academy St. and east of 10th Avenue for mixed-use developments and waterfronts.

The project hasn't publicly come before the community since last July, although the EDC met with local community groups to address specific questions and concerns, such as the proposed height and density of buildings along W. 218th Street.

But local groups said they were worried by the the group’s efforts.

"The involvement of Capalino + Partners is extremely concerning. They are notorious for using underhanded tactics to circumvent community objections to bad projects and influence the political process on behalf of its developer clients,” said Graham Ciraulo, of Northern Manhattan Is Not 4 Sale, the coalition initially opposed to the Inwood rezoning project.

“We saw this play out with the Rivington House scandal on the Lower East Side. We will not for one second tolerate their efforts to manipulate the Inwood rezoning process for the benefit of a luxury developer."

Recently, locals said Capalino + Company began contacting them about something called the "Sustainable Inwood" initiative.

Tom Gray, senior vice president of Capalino + Company, sent emails to a member of The Metropolitan Council on Housing — a tenants rights group — in which he wrote that he was conducting outreach on behalf of “Sustainable Inwood,” Capalino + Company and Taconic Investment Partners and wished to set up a meeting. A copy of the email was shared with DNAinfo New York.

"I’m reaching out on behalf of my client, Taconic Investment Partners, LLC, and the Sustainable Inwood coalition," Gray wrote in the email, dated Feb. 16, "The Sustainable Inwood coalition advocates for policies that promote affordable housing, education and workforce development, parks and waterfront and public safety and livability in Inwood. We would like to come in to discuss how we can work together on a plan that makes sense for the entire community."

Capalino + Company was also a top fundraiser for Mayor Bill de Blasio. The mayor said he had limited contact with James Capalino, Capalino’s CEO, following a series of federal and state investigations into his fundraising practices.  

Asked about "Sustainable Inwood" and the contact with locals, Taconic co-chief executive officer, Charles Bendit, wrote in an email to DNAinfo New York last week, "We would be happy to chat with you, but at this point in the process we don't think it is appropriate to have this discussion since this is really a city led initiative."

"The city is developing the neighborhood plan for Inwood and they are leading the effort to get that plan approved.  We own property within the area that is part of the neighborhood plan and therefore are an interested party.  As such we would defer to the city for comment, at least for the time being," Bendit added.

Bendit later sought to clarify that firm has helped organize the community-efforts to revitalize the project, adding “there are a number of local groups” currently on board with the project.

When asked if his company hired Capalino, Bendit confirmed that the company was his firm’s “advisor.”

Resident Gwendolyn Chambrun, who lives in Inwood and participates in several local groups, said she received a phone call from a call center on behalf of “Sustainable Inwood” Friday afternoon.

“They were presenting [Sustainable Inwood] as its own coalition, and it set up a red flag for me, because I’m involved in several Inwood groups and have never heard of it,” Chambrun said, adding that the caller said the group wanted to meet with Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez and request that he support the Inwood rezoning project.

“He kept coming back to ‘the neighborhood is growing, people are on fixed incomes and being priced out, and must rezone to build new affordable housing.’ We went back and forth quite a bit and then he said it was time to end the call,” Chambrun wrote in an email to DNAinfo New York.

Russell Murphy, a spokesman for Rodriguez, said his office has received 20 phone calls asking about neighborhood rezoning this past week, although he wouldn’t confirm if callers have referred to Capalino or “Sustainable Inwood.”

“Our office has not been in touch with anyone from Capalino+Company in relation to Inwood NYC for several months now, nor have we had any contact with anyone at an organization named ‘Sustainable Inwood Coalition,’” Murphy said. “We have received calls over the past week from constituents issuing support for Inwood NYC.”

Rodriguez and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer penned a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio on March 31 asking for the Inwood rezoning project footprint to be expanded.

"While we support efforts to encourage new affordable housing and jobs east of 10th Avenue, we agree with the community that the rest of Inwood urgently needs attention as well. We therefore request that the Administration expand the rezoning area to include a contextual rezoning framework in Inwood west of 10th Avenue, where appropriate, to ensure that development balances the goals of creating new affordable housing with preserving the neighborhood context and jobs," read the letter from Brewer and Rodriguez.

"We urge the Administration to take a more aggressive approach to the creation of affordable housing, including leveraging city-owned property and applying subsidies to facilitate the creation of new developments throughout Inwood that are 100% or significantly comprised of a range of affordable units that meet the incomes of residents in the neighborhood," the letter continued.

An EDC spokeswoman said the agency is “reviewing” Brewer’s and Rodriguez’s proposal‎ and look forward to continuing work with them and the Inwood community in the coming months.