You maybe asking yourself why the Juniper Park Civic Association is giving our Man of the Year Award to a councilman who represents a district on the other side of Queens. The answer is that no elected official has done more for Maspeth and Middle Village over the past year than Councilman Tony Avella.
Throughout 2006, the Juniper Park Civic Association fought battles in favor of historic preservation and against over-development. These issues are integral to our ongoing mission of protecting the quality of life of the residents of Maspeth and Middle Village.
“In standing our ground on these issues, the JPCA lost the support of several local elected officials, who have decided to fight against their constituents instead of fighting for them,” said JPCA President Robert Holden. “Councilman Avella has been strongly supportive of the goals of this organization as well as of the communities we serve.”
Last April, when JPCA and West Maspeth residents stood out on a cold rainy morning protesting the impending demolition of St. Saviour’s Church, Councilman Avella stood right along side us. A few weeks later, he held a press conference with us at the site and promised to meet with the owners of the property to try to work out a solution that would be fair to them while also benefiting the community.
“I called the attorney of the organization and I said, ‘Do nothing. If you demolish that building, you can kiss any further zoning applications goodbye,’” Avella said at the rally. “They have agreed not to do anything until they meet with me.”
Avella, in fact, did meet with the developers last May, although according to the councilman, their attorney at that time unfortunately “brought nothing to the table” and wouldn’t budge. After two years and no zoning change, things are different now. The owners have new representation and recently indicated that they would be in favor of a land swap. Mr. Avella is currently lobbying city hall to come to the negotiating table to save the grounds of St. Saviour’s as a park and the buildings as a museum and community center for the people of Maspeth.
“Until you are satisfied, I am not going to approve any zoning applications for this site,” Avella repeatedly has told us.
Councilman Avella was also one of the few city officials to take a stand against overdevelopment in 2006. On a windy December afternoon, Councilman Avella stood with the JPCA again at a press conference held to protest the construction of an illegal apartment building by the notorious developer, Tommy Huang.
Certain elected officials were calling for Huang, a convicted felon with a 25-year history of non-compliance with the city’s building and zoning codes, to ‘play by the rules.’ Of course, these elected officials were nowhere to be seen at the rally. That didn’t dissuade JPCA and Tony Avella from getting the Buildings Department to rescind all permits on the site, which stopped all construction there permanently. The JPCA is now pushing to have the building demolished.
Councilman Avella promises, “Here and in every other residential community, we’re going to win. But it’s going to take some real effort to get this done, and I want to thank the civic association for leading the fight in your own neighborhood.”
Others have also been impressed by Councilman Avella’s responsiveness.
“Avella is one of the few council members who have consistently been supportive of historic preservation,” stated Paul Graziano, an urban planning and historic preservation consultant from Flushing. “In his own district, he's supporting New York City landmark district status for the Broadway-Flushing neighborhood, which has over 1300 buildings already listed on the National Register of Historic Places. He has also been present on the front line of the zoning wars that have been going on during the past five years, helping neighborhoods all over Queens and the rest of New York City contextually rezone their communities to better protect them from overdevelopment,” Graziano said.
In addition to holding press conferences and attending rallies, Avella has waged war on abusive building practices by sponsoring legislation to make demolition without a permit a crime, and to require the Buildings Department and NYPD to enforce stop work orders by arresting violators. He is sponsoring legislation to require the city to enforce deed restrictions, a tool that homeowners and civic groups use to ensure that the character of a neighborhood is preserved. Currently, the city does not actively enforce these restrictions, so homeowners or civic groups in a community must initiate costly legal battles in order to ensure enforcement.
Avella is also sponsoring several pieces of legislation to overhaul the Board of Standards and Appeals, which at this time has the final word on zoning variances and special permits. Furthermore, he is seeking to grant the City Council review power over the city’s sale of its own land to developers through the Economic Development Corporation.
The way things are set up presently, while a zoning change application goes through the typical land use process of hearings before the community board, borough president, city council, etc. (a process that generally takes months), developers tear buildings down in a frenzy and submit plans which would not be allowed under the pending zoning. If they get so much as a foundation in the ground before the zoning resolution is passed, they may proceed with their original plan. Mr. Avella has introduced legislation that would put an end to that, by instituting a moratorium on building permits that violate pending zoning changes.
Tony Avella was busy fighting for other quality-of-life issues throughout 2006 as well. He sponsored legislation whereby homeowners would voluntarily enroll in a program to stop the unwanted delivery of circular ads. He has also sponsored a bill that would prevent auto dealers from using public streets to park and store vehicles, and a bill to exempt homeowners from paying for the cost of new sidewalks as a result of city construction projects. He is also working to close loopholes in the city noise code, and ban the waste of taxpayer dollars by city elected officials on holiday and other greetings in newspapers.
Avella also tackled public safety issues, sponsoring legislation to require businesses to post their signs and addresses in English (as well as other languages they may choose), to mandate new city guidelines for the placement of stop signs and traffic lights, to require the DOT to replace damaged or missing stop signs within 48 hours of notification, and to require the installation of security cameras in all parking lots containing 200 or more spaces.
He has also sponsored resolutions which request the state to take action on issues that are outside the City Council’s jurisdiction. The boldest of these resolutions would give the city control over buses and subways, taking the power away from the state-run MTA.
Other resolutions he has sponsored would allow seizure of trucks for repeat violations of city truck route rules, and provide increased property tax breaks to veterans.
For all of his hard work aimed at benefiting the people of our neighborhoods, the JPCA is proud to make Councilman Tony Avella our 2006 Man of the Year.
Tony Avella was born in Astoria in 1951. His father, Anthony, was a disabled World War II veteran, and his mother, Alice, was a legal secretary. Tony attended PS 166, JHS 204, and then Long Island City High School before enrolling in Hunter College where he first majored in civil engineering. However, a desire to make a difference in government combined with a dislike of higher math led Tony to change his major to Political Science. After graduating, he found that jobs in the public sector were scarce, so he went to work as a manager for American Beverage (which later became part of Canada Dry / Pepsi). Tony began his career in public service as an aide to Councilman Peter Vallone, Sr. He then went on to serve as an aide to Mayors Koch and Dinkins.
Tony was first elected to the City Council in 2001, and took office in January 2002. He was re-elected by an overwhelming majority in both the 2003 and 2005 elections. He currently serves as the chair of the Zoning and Franchises committees. He is also a member of the committees on Higher Education, Housing and Buildings, Fire and Criminal Justice Services, Land Use and Veterans. Tony founded the first Italian-American Caucus of the City Council, and currently serves as chair. Tony was one of only two council members to refuse a controversial pay raise, and has also refused to accept “lulus,” the extra pay to which a councilmember is awarded as compensation for chairing committees. How ironic that a man who accomplishes so much more than most of his colleagues is paid considerably less.
Tony has been married to Judith Cashman since 1989, and the couple resides in Whitestone. In the little spare time that he has, Tony follows the Mets and also enjoys playing chess, although his schedule makes that difficult these days. He does, however, take time to enjoy his favorite food, lasagna.
The future looks bright for Tony Avella. While his tenure in the City Council will end in 2009, he has announced his candidacy for the 2009 mayoral race. Should Tony win, he will do so without the support of special interest money and political deal making, since he has earned a reputation as a fighter for our neighborhoods and for standing up for the little guy.