By Ayala Ben-Yehuda

In an effort to preserve the residential character of northeast Queens neighborhoods, City Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) has hired urban planning consultant and preservationist Paul Graziano to study the zoning in Avella’s district and recommend changes to the Department of City Planning.

Graziano, a former city council candidate and the current Zoning and Land Use co-chairman for the Queens Civic Congress, has already begun his study comparing the present level of development, block-by-block, with what is allowed under the city’s 1961 zoning resolution.

The goal of the study is for the City Planning Department to implement what Graziano called “contextual rezoning,” or the rezoning of a neighborhood to reflect its present character rather than a maximum allowable density envisioned by city planners decades ago.

Avella allocated $15,000 from his council budget for the study, expected to be completed by Oct. 15.

“It’s a major step forward,” said Avella, who has helped push for increased restrictions on the ability of houses of worship and medical offices to expand into residential areas.

Avella’s district stretches from College Point and Whitestone through Bayside to the city line in Little Neck.

The city came up with its zoning resolution in 1961, when it was believed that New York City’s population would be double what it actually is today.

The current zoning laws, which govern the type of structures and building uses permitted in the city, technically allow a much higher level of development than what is now present in many one- and two-family residential areas.

Developers all over the borough have taken advantage of the laws in recent years to legally build higher-density homes out of keeping with their lower-density neighborhoods, civic leaders have said.

“It’s a serious situation and one that we want to stop, and we think we can do that with rezoning,” said Andrew Ippolito, president of the “Property” Civic Association, which is surveying the area between 32nd Avenue and Francis Lewis, Northern and Bell boulevards as part of the study.

Avella and Graziano have solicited the advice of other civic groups in Avella’s district to make recommendations on zoning for their neighborhoods, including the Westmoreland and Greater Whitestone Taxpayers associations.

In the study, Graziano and a Columbia University intern will pore over zoning maps, deed restrictions and data showing the occupancy and floor area ratios mandated by the City Planning Department in a given area.

They will also visually examine neighborhoods to determine their overall character. The City Planning Department would be generally amenable to a zoning designation for a given set of blocks as long as about 75 percent of the lots share the same type of development, said Graziano, who has consulted the agency on other zoning issues.

Graziano believes about two-thirds of neighborhoods in Avella’s district were properly zoned—that is, in keeping with their actual use.

In 1961, zoning maps were drawn in straight lines and boxes unreflective of varying needs within the districts, said Graziano.

“We’ve got specific needs on specific lots that need to be addressed,” he said.

Graziano’s study will not include the Northern Boulevard commercial overlay since the city is reluctant to make changes to major thoroughfares, said Graziano.

Though similar studies have been conducted for individual neighborhoods in Queens, Graziano’s study is “on a much larger scale than it’s ever been done before,” said Avella.

Both Graziano and Avella hoped the study would encourage civic leaders and council members in other districts to take up similar studies on the district level, since each smaller rezoning could take years.

Avella and Graziano agreed that the City Planning Department under its new chair, Amanda Burden, was much more amenable to zoning changes than in previous years.

“But we have to do our part first,” said Avella.

Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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