(The photo, by Jonathan Barkey, comes from the June 27 rally against the abuse of eminent domain.)
Fear of the real estate industry
Rail: What do you think other council members are afraid of?
Avella: A few things: one, the real estate industry controls the agenda in the city. Not me as an elected official, not my colleagues—it’s the real estate industry because they give a lot of money to local politicians. The other aspect of it is that there’s very little independence in the council because of the power of the speaker [currently Christine Quinn]. If you go against the speaker, there are ways that she can get back at you.
Rail: If you were elected mayor, how would you counteract the overdevelopment seen in many neighborhoods during the Bloomberg years?
Avella: Well, first of all, we’ve got to do a comprehensive re-do rezoning in the city of New York. We need to make sure that we accurately reflect the residential character of the neighborhoods. At the same time, we need to work with neighborhoods and communities to see where development can go. We need to eliminate all of the illegal construction and put some real teeth into the problem of the Department of Buildings. That agency is in total chaos. I mean, if you are a homeowner and you do the simplest little thing wrong, they’ll come down on you like a ton of bricks—but developers get away with anything. We also need to take control of the little-known, quasi-judicial agency called the Board of Standards and Appeals, which is made up of five commissioners appointed by the mayor who really have almost total power, but there’s no oversight of that agency whatsoever.
Community plans needed
Rail: And no one really knows what they do.
Avella: Exactly. No one knows what they do, but they give the variances that allow the developers to obviate any part of the zoning codes. It is amazing to me that they’re supposed to have five criteria by which they approve of a variance, but they really can do whatever they want. For example, a developer buys a piece of property and goes to the Board of Standards and Appeals. He’ll tell them, “I can’t build a 12-story building on it because the zoning’s different” or “I paid too much money for it and the only way I can make it back is to build a 12-story building.” And they’ll give him the variance. It’s insane. In addition to changing this process, my other main plan regarding development is to go out in every neighborhood and do comprehensive planning. In every neighborhood, community leaders will get together and determine what’s wrong or what’s right with their neighborhood now, what needs to be done, and where they’d like to see their community five, ten years down the line. Those plans would get put together into borough-wide documents, which would be compiled into a city-wide document that becomes the planning blueprint for the city.