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January 22, 2006

A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

January 22, 2006

The Mystery Of Holland Avenue

So, why’d they do it?

Several current and former members of the City of Albany Common Council, along with some of their supporters, are very upset with me. They are simply shocked... SHOCKED I tell you! find out from me that many of their constituents believe that Albany politicians are on the take. You know, accepting the occasional cash inducement for performing favors.

This past December 5th, I sat down at the microphone in front of the Common Council and told our elected representatives that the people of my neighborhood absolutely did not want the empty lot on Holland Avenue located next to McDonald’s Slophouse to become designated as a "highway commercial" zone.

You see, this is the middle of the City of Albany. It is not part of some hopeless automobile slum like Colonie or Guilderland. While Holland Avenue may, at first glance, resemble some suburban nightmare like Wolf Road or Route 9, it is still fixable. With proper planning, Holland Avenue could be remade into a decent city street.

Everyone who lives nearby understands what "highway commercial" means. More traffic, more noise, more pollution, less safety and the undermining of neighborhood small businesses. You don't need a masters degree in planning to see that.

Besides, the Common Council is clearly engaging in what is known as spot zoning, or spot rezoning, which is illegal in New York State.

I told our elected representatives that most of my neighbors were very upset by this action. I could not find a single person along the upper part of Morton Avenue or in the streets behind who wanted it. Over and over, I heard variations of the same question, “Why are they doing this to us?”

I answered my neighbors by saying that I couldn’t answer that question, because I didn’t know.

And you know what? One neighbor after another gave me a knowing look and said, “We all know why,” or “Hey, they’re not in office for their health,” or the more direct “They’re lining their pockets, what else?”

I had to listen to a couple of angry rants, such as the lady who hollered at me, “They don’t give a s--t about us. Them guys are looking’ out for number one.” Or the guy who yelled, “You know what we are? We’re cows. That’s all we are. All they wanna do is milk us.”

After hearing all this, I thought that I was being very mild and tasteful when I duly reported to the members of the Common Council that my neighbors firmly believed that their elected officials were being paid for their votes in favor of the illegal spot rezoning. I then added that it appeared to me that this vote would turn out to be a referendum on the personal integrity of each of the members of the Council.

You could hear a nanobyte pin drop in the Chamber.

Now, just for the record, I never actually said that I personally thought that they were on the take over this issue. In fact, I would be very surprised to find out that any of these folks were accepting wads of cash for their services. If anything I would agree with county legislator Tom Monjeau, who chatted with me in the doorway of the Chamber shortly after I made my startling revelations.

“I don't know anything about the Common Council,” he said, “but I know that over at the County nobody is dumb enough to accept envelopes under the table. But some of my fellow legislators have their “little things” going. I suspect it’s the same with the City.”

That being said, I fully realized that this subtle differentiation would become obscured, and I would be branded as that guy who shocked... SHOCKED! ...the Council by accusing the whole bunch of being bribe takers. Indeed, from what I’m hearing, that is exactly what Jimmy Scalzo of the 10th Ward, the Council member who led the spot rezoning effort, has been angrily saying about me to his supporters, and to just about anyone else.

I’m a big boy, I can take it. But that still doesn’t answer the question, why are they doing this to us? I’ve heard Mr. Monjeau wonder why out loud on several occasions. “Accusations of corruption aside,” he said, “there’s got to be a motivation for this, or at least a cover. What is it?”

First Ward Council member Dominick Calsolaro has no questions. In early January, he overheard me discussing this pressing question with several people as he was passing by. He stopped, turned, flashed his eyes, bared his teeth, and said, “They did it for one reason. The Mayor told them to.”

It appears that once again, Dom has got it right. I have in my possession a copy of an interesting letter written by Peter Lynch, the lawyer working for the developer, Thomas Burke. This is the same Peter Lynch from the suburbs who would not give his proper address to the Common Council, even though the thirty or so citizens of Albany who spoke passionately against the spot rezoning on December 5th were required to state their addresses.

This is the same athletic Peter Lynch who, along with my spouse, ran in the 10K Turkey Trot foot race on Thanksgiving morning in downtown Troy. (This was Lynne’s first 10K, she finished dead last to great applause.) She spotted Lynch’s unmistakable hairdo, and he made a point of warmly saying hi to her.

A week and a half later, in the Common Council chambers, Lynch again spoke to Lynne, somewhat deprecatingly, “I’m proud of you for running in that 10K.”

“You’re a runner, Peter,” said Lynne. “Don’t you understand what this rezoning means to runners? Because of the cars, it’s hard enough to run safely in my neighborhood. Pedestrian fatalities are on the rise everywhere.”

Lynch hemmed and hawed. Lynne asked, “So where do you run?”

He said, “Um, I run all over.” Lynne pressed him. “Where do you live?” she asked. “Do you run where you live?”

“What is this, an interrogation?” and Lynch turned away. So much for a direct appeal to common sense.

The letter from Lynch is dated December 2nd, and it is addressed to Patrick Jordan, Assistant Corporation Counsel for the City of Albany. For those of you who don’t know, the Corporation Counsel is the lawyer who is on the city payroll. The Counsel and his/her assistants dispense legal advice to the city as needed.

Please understand that the Corporation Counsel is appointed by The Mayor.

Now, let me stop here to explain that the actions taken during the two Common Council sessions in December turned out to be the contents of a political toilet bowl, a toilet that was scheduled to flush at the end of the year and no sooner. And yes, the stink was incredible.

These two December meetings would be the last time The Mayor could count on controlling the Council. A new, more independent Council was taking over in January, and it appeared unlikely that this new Council would tolerate such nonsense as an illegal spot rezoning that no one wanted. No one, of course, except those who stood to make money from the deal. Time was running out for The Mayor.

So, The Mayor had to get his spot rezoning through the Council while his obedient lame ducks were still sitting in the Chamber. But there was an apparent complication.

In any development proposal, the City has to follow the environmental laws, specifically the State Environmental Quality Review Act, known as SEQRA. In most cases, SEQRA is easy to sidestep.

But the sidestepping procedure takes a little bit of time. Usually, two Common Council meetings is not enough time.

That’s where the letter comes in. Peter Lynch, lawyer for the developer, is seen in the letter instructing the Corporation Council on the exact procedure which must be followed so that The Mayor’s servants on the Common Council can get this spot rezoning approved in the time allotted, and avoid challenges and lawsuits over the SEQRA issue. (For now, I am reserving judgment on whether or not Lynch’s advice is correct or not.)

This letter arrived three days before the first Common Council meeting in December. Lynch’s advice was followed to the letter.

Now, Common Council member Jimmy Scalzo, who did the actual dirty work to shove through the spot rezoning, is no more of a lawyer than I am. He not only broke courtesy and precedent by his actions, he followed a precise procedure as he pushed it through. He did it haltingly, but he managed it properly.

No way that he did all that without precise instructions. No way. He must have been coached by The Mayor’s appointees on the Corporation Counsel, who in turn were coached by the lawyer for the developer, Peter Lynch.

So this letter plausibly demonstrates that Dom Calsolaro has it absolutely correct. The Mayor instructed Jimmy Scalzo to give this favor to the developer, and Jimmy obeyed.

Fine. But this begs the question: why does The Mayor want this illegal spot rezoning so badly? Why is he defying common sense and public opinion? What’s his motivation?

Perhaps my neighbors have already figured out the answer.

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