Council Member Tony Avella Proposes Wide-Ranging Land Use Initiatives in the First Months of 2006

In the first months of 2006, Council Member Tony Avella, Chair of the Subcommittee on Zoning & Franchises, introduced proposed legislation to change the make up of BSA, require NYPD arrests for any illegal demolition, and curb the illegal construction that residents say is driven by a rush to beat a down-zoning. CityLand asked Avella about his proposed land use initiatives and his career.

Public Service. When asked about land use issues within his 20-year career in politics, Avella quickly corrects the question, substituting “public service” for “politics.” After graduating from Hunter College CUNY in Manhattan, Avella started jobs in government, serving as aides to Council Speaker Peter Vallone, Sr. and Mayor Koch, and chief of staff for State Senators Toby and Leonard Stavinsky. Avella credits his volunteer work on community organizations and as Chair of Queens Community Board 7’s Land Use and Transportation Committees as providing a “unique perspective” to his current role. Explaining that he worked on the Koch administration’s Zoning Resolution revisions; Avella added that he recognized early on that abuses to the zoning code had a significant impact on quality of life issues.

BSA Reform. Avella views BSA as “out of control,” explaining that when it issues an immense number of variances for the same area, it equals a BSA-originated rezoning. The Board of Estimate held a right to review BSA decisions, but with this check eliminated in 1991, Avella complains that no oversight remains, and residents only redress is an expensive court appeal. Avella introduced three proposals in April 2006, “returning the concept of checks and balances.” Under the first, the Council, by a majority vote, could review all BSA variances and special permits. The second two proposals, called the “moderate alternative” by Avella, seek to increase the five-member, mayoral-appointed board to a 13-member board with one member appointed by each borough president, the public advocate, the comptroller and the Council, and to require a two-thirds majority vote of the new board for all approvals.

Illegal Demolition and Stop-Work Orders. Developers, Avella said, think that it is “no big deal” to violate stop-work orders or start demolition without a permit since penalties are insignificant and Buildings enforcement is “non-existent.” The NYPD reported that it rarely knows of stopwork orders or what role it should take despite the fact that the current law anticipates an agency partnership. Avella introduced two linked bills in February 2006 to clarify the agencies’ roles. If passed, Buildings must report all stop-work orders and illegal demolitions to the NYPD, and the NYPD must arrest anyone found on the work site to be in violation of an order or involved in an illegal demolition. The proposal makes demolition without a valid permit a misdemeanor, punishable by $5,000, six months in jail, or both.

Curbing Construction to Beat the Clock. Avella claims that residents frequently report illegal and unsafe construction immediately before an area’s downzoning. Avella’s current bill would place a moratorium on construction between the Planning Commission’s approval and the Council’s vote, a maximum timeframe of 50 days, which represents a decrease from the Council’s original plan for a moratorium from the moment the Commission certified a rezoning application.

Architectural Review. Avella claims that, even after several years of aggressive rezoning, a majority of development in low-density areas is “ugly” and “cookie cutter,” resulting in inconsistent neighborhood character and diminished property values. Avella mentioned his desire to create an “architectural review board” that would review proposed building designs before Buildings could issue a permit. Still in its planning phase, such a board could serve as an “in-between mechanism” between Buildings and Landmarks, creating architectural review districts in lieu of historic districts. Avella plans to look at other cities with similar legislation. He sees the board as an arm of Buildings and admits that architectural review might not be appropriate for all neighborhoods.

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