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May 21, 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.

May 21, 2006

Albany’s Corrupt Planning Board

41 Holland Avenue site plan is secretly approved and the citizens are screwed. Again.

Lately I’ve been wondering if Karl Rove started out as an Albany old boy machine Democrat. Or if Jerry Jennings learned his politics from Dick Cheney. I've even entertained the possibility that George W. Bush is really a corpse animated by the evil ghost of Erastus Corning.

Okay, so maybe the first one is totally absurd. Only a lifelong Republican could be as depraved as Rove. But other than scale and location, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between Albany City Hall and the White House.

Take the City of Albany Planning Board, for example. The City website explains the purpose of the Planning Board this way:

The Division of Planning is responsible for the administration and procedural requirements of the development approval process.

That’s all it says. What the website does NOT explain is why we have an appointed board instead of, say, a guy named Larry. The five members of the board are supposed to bring diverse opinion and expertise to the process of deciding what gets built in the City of Albany. It is also supposed to make the process easily discernable to the public.

We don’t have any of that here in Albany. We have a thing so secretive and corrupt that it would fit in nicely at the White House. And we have Planning Board members that could have been selected by Karl Rove himself. We might as well have an obedient guy named Larry instead.

The Wife went down to the Common Council chambers in City Hall last Thursday (May 18) to monitor the City of Albany Planning Board, and got a big surprise. It wasn’t the impending rubber stamp approval of another unwanted and unnecessary Pine Bush “development.” This one is adjacent to Daughters of Sarah nursing home, over which Save the Pine Bush has filed a lawsuit. She’s seen too many of these corrupt giveaways to “developers” over the years to be surprised.

She caught the first clue that something odd was about to happen shortly after she sat down at the press table like she usually does. She sits there because she wants to hear the proceedings.

This is very hard to do. The problem is that the Planning Board mumbles. They don’t use the sound system, and they don’t make any effort to accommodate the public.

Indeed, everything the Planning Board does is designed to be as secretive and separate from the public as possible. For starters, they always meet at Nine O’clock in the morning. The vast majority of the voting and taxpaying population at large has something to do at 9 AM, like work, go to school, or sleep. Besides, who wants to listen to a bunch of machine boys mumble at that hour?

And the Board always meets on Thursday, but not just any Thursday. They meet every third Thursday. No one but a mathematical savant could keep track of such a schedule. As The Wife is fond of saying, “I defy ANYONE to tell me when the next Planning Board meeting is without calling first.”

Of course, there is never any public comment period. Ever. The City of Albany has the only Planning Board in the Capital District that does not take public comments. If this is not illegal, then it ought to be.

But every effort is made to accommodate the hit and run developers, who stand before the Board with their backs to the public. Their maps and diagrams are set on easels that are deliberately faced away from the taxpaying observers.

The press table is at stage left to the podium, close enough so that if you listen carefully you can catch about half the mumbling up above. (That’s not an exaggeration, by the way.) The Wife sat next to some suit and tie developer’s lackey who was fingering papers spread out on the table. The meeting began and she started taking notes.

The suit leaned over to her. “This table is reserved. You can’t sit here, you have to sit behind the bar.” Meaning, in the back of the room away from the important people.

“No,” she said, “you can’t hear back there, I’m gonna stay here.”

“No,” said the suit, “you have to go sit behind the bar.”

“No,” she repeated, “I can’t hear back there, I’m gonna stay here.”

The suit pulled every last ball of self importance out of his butt and said, “I’m going to have to talk to counsel.”

The Wife shrugged and went back to taking notes of the mumbling. She told me later that she had made a snap decision to sit there no matter what happened, even if they threatened to arrest her. “Oh yeah, I could just see it,” she said, happily envisioning the potential ruckus.

The suit got up from the table and went over to... Dan Hershberg! Now Hershberg can be called a lot of things that are true, some of them nasty. One of the more polite things is “Politically Connected Engineer.” But as far as I know, no one has ever truthfully called him “counsel,” which I’ve always taken to mean someone who has passed the bar exam.

Hershberg looked up briefly and started, then waved away the suit, who sat down meekly next to The Wife. He behaved like a good boy for the rest of the mumbling session. After twenty years of tangling with The Wife, Hershberg knows better. Now the suit does, too.

The Wife could not recall anyone ever trying to shoo her away from these proceedings. Apparently, something was up. She decided to stick around to the end and see.

Planning Board Chair Raymond Joyce mumbled a postponement of the impending approval of this latest rape of the Pine Bush, then things got strange. Everybody moved to stage right of the podium, as far from The Wife as possible. They huddled protectively and spread their maps and charts on a table. She couldn’t catch any of the distant mumbles, so she got up and moved closer.

They were discussing the site plan for 41 Holland Avenue.

For those of you who moved to Albany last week, or get your news exclusively from the corporate media, this is the corrupt collaboration between Mayor Jerry Jennings and Tom Burke of the Picotte Company, who resides in Bethlehem. Jennings has directed his minions on the Common Council to spot change the zoning designation on this parcel of land on the East end of Holland Avenue to Highway Commercial.

The spot zoning was done in the sleaziest manner possible, ostensibly to plant a Walgreens and a Panera Bread. No one who lives nearby wants a Walgreens. No one wants the parking lot and drive through. Even more to the point, no one wants the suburbanization that comes with Highway Commercial zoning, which will kill local businesses and invite unwanted auto traffic.

The outrage over this forced suburbanization of an urban street is nearly unanimous across the entire City. Except, of course, among Jennings' minions. Ten neighborhood associations and the Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations (CANA) have pooled their resources to file a lawsuit against this illegal spot zoning.

In response to the angry taxpayers, the entire City government has been mobilized to support this corrupt political payoff to a suburban interloper. All of The Mayor’s minions, from the Corporation Counsel to the Planning Board, have worked full time to defeat the taxpayers and voters. No effort or expense has been spared.

Back in December, Common Council member Jimmy Scalzo (10th Ward,) who always obeys The Mayor, tried to cover up his obvious shame over leading the spot rezoning in the Council by trying to divert attention away from himself. “Where were YOU PEOPLE,” he bawled during a Common Council meeting, “when my neighborhood, Park South, was going into the s--tter?” To this day, no one has the slightest idea what this bit of profane idiocy was supposed to mean.

As for Council member Jim Sano (9th Ward,) who is another one of Jerry’s Kids, I have heard from multiple sources that for a while he was telling his constituents that he voted against the rezoning to Highway Commercial. In actuality, he enthusiastically and obediently voted in favor. Now that’s shame. Not to mention revealing self hatred.

So now it was the Planning Board’s turn to help screw the City. If they were hiding and whispering with a bunch of suits practically in the corner - scared s--tless of The Wife! - then it was clear that they were doing something that they all knew was wrong. They must have been ashamed.

It was a very bad sign that they were discussing 41 Holland Avenue at all. There has been only one instance within living memory that the Planning Board rejected a site plan that the Mayor had originally endorsed. This was the attempt to locate an environmentally unsound asphalt plant in the South End next to the Hudson River back in 2003.

This polluting horror would have spewed many thousands of tons of toxic chemicals out of its smokestacks and into the the densely populated neighborhoods nearby. Thousands of south End citizens would have sickened and many would have died over the lifetime of the plant. Perhaps that was the plan.

The people of the South End came out to fight, including most of the politicians who live there. Mayor Jennings was faced with near riot conditions. Indeed, there were several acts of property vandalism against the suburbanite developers who were behind the plant. Jennings had no choice but to tell the Planning Board to withdraw the site plan approval.

Yes, that’s how it works. They do exactly what he says, no more or less.

I remember the scene that morning well. The developer’s lawyer, Donald Zee, stood before the podium like an errant schoolboy. A sizable group of us had pushed past “the bar” in the back of the Common Council chamber and had seated ourselves insolently in the seats reserved for the Common Council members. We were angry. No one dared to argue with us.

The Chair of the Planning Board, Raymond Joyce, read aloud from a prepared text in his loudest mumble. Opinion was divided over whether or not he was reading his own words. From the way he was stumbling over the text it sure sounded to me like he was reading it for the first time.

It was a detailed indictment of the asphalt plant, point by point. The basis for the withdrawal of approval was that the developers had omitted relevant information about the project. And, it had come to light that they had made misleading statements on their application.

Now, these sorts of errors had never been important to the Planning Board, and they haven't been since. For example, the details of 41 Holland Avenue have changed repeatedly at every step of the process. The Planning Board does not seem to be the least bit concerned. Lawsuits by neighbors are easier to brush off than rioting South Enders.

That morning in 2003, Chairman Joyce finished stumbling through the prepared statement and pronounced the site plan for the asphalt plan rejected. All of us stood up from our Common Council member seats and clapped furiously.

Joyce sat open mouthed and blinking. The other four Board members shrunk back into their chairs and frowned. Donald Zee, a stunned look on his face, turned on his heel and walked straight out of the chamber and never looked back.

Sad to say, this historic scene was unique. The Wife, now sitting in Cathy Fahey’s seat (7th Ward,) strained to hear the lower than usual mumbles from the huddle on the far end of the podium. Suddenly it was over. The conspirators packed up their papers and dispersed, while the Planning Board members settled back in their seats. Joyce adjourned the meeting.

The Wife went right up to Joyce and politely but firmly asked what the hell had just happened. After some confusion, she learned that the Board had just approved the site plan for 41 Holland Avenue, including a twenty five foot sign. Apparently there were some conditions, but it is not likely that the developer will follow them if he so chooses to ignore them.

Well, just another busy day in City Hall, thinking up ways to destroy our neighborhoods and make suburban "developers" richer. See what I mean? It’s like a little local version of the White House. Like George W. Bush, Jerry Jennings always has something dirty or illegal to hide.

There were several obvious illegalities with this Rovian proceeding. First, the Planning Board is REQUIRED to notify the Common Council at least one week in advance of all site plan considerations involving a zoning change. So far, both Cathy Fahey and Dominic Calsolero (1st Ward) have confirmed that they were not notified.

But what about the Open Meetings Law? Is the City in compliance if every effort is made to exclude the public, and the public cannot hear what is going on? If the Board is capable of doing everything it possibly can to accommodate the hit and run suburbanite “developers,” then it can put out a meeting agenda and turn on the sound system in the chamber. I think we all need to have a conversation with Robert Freeman, the director of the State Committee on Open Government.

There is a deeper problem here, in that secrecy and exclusion by City planning is an open invitation to violence. When people rightfully feel frustrated by an undemocratic process, they may very well resort to property damage or worse to defend their neighborhoods. Indeed, if we compare this current Holland Avenue suburbanization scheme to the 2003 asphalt plant horror, we see that the threat of impending violence is the only thing that the old boys of City Hall understand.

Now, I’m a peaceful guy. Besides, I’m not allowed to advocate violence against the filthy corporate garbage getting slapped up on 41 Holland Avenue, so I won’t. That’s against the law.

But what about Jerry Jennings and suburbanite Tom Burke? They are allowed to commit an act of violence against our neighborhoods, and they are allowed to profit from that violence. To trample upon approved procedure and to openly violate the law in order to consciously and deliberately destroy our property, our neighborhoods, is a pure and premeditated criminal act.

Why are these two allowed to do this? Why are they running around loose, ready to commit more acts of violence against the City? Is there no way to stop institutional violence, except with more violence?

Between them Jennings and Burke have all the money and the power. Like any other organized criminals, they don’t think that they need consent from their victims. They believe that the system exists primarily to loot and plunder the City. For their benefit, of course.

The Wife got a taste of Tom Burke’s true character after the meeting. She encountered him surrounded by his lackeys in front of City Hall, smirking like a spoiled brat who had just pulled a fast one on the adults. He offered and shook her hand with a childish air of victorious triumph.

“How could you build such an ugly thing in my neighborhood?” she said.

“It won’t be ugly,” the suburbanite replied, almost giggling. “You’re going to enjoy shopping there.”

“No,” she said, “I won’t be shopping there.”

He sneered with contempt. “Oh, yes you will."

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