Urban planning consultant and civic activist Paul Graziano is mounting another bid in the 19th Council District after two failed tries, once in 2013 and another this past September inthe Democratic Primary. In both instances, the land use expert fell short to Paul Vallone, the current councilman representing the northeast Queens district.
This November in the general election Graziano is running on the Reform Party line, hoping to knock off the incumbent by appealing to all voters in the district.
In an interview last week, Graziano laid out his case to the voters, including decades of civic involvement and his passion for protecting neighborhoods from overdevelopment.
As the planning consultant in the early to late-2000's for then-councilman Tony Avella, now the area’s state senator, Graziano worked to rezone large swaths of the borough to restrict out-of-character developments for neighborhoods across Queens, including nearly the entire 19th Council District.
He authored the anti-McMansion zones that prevent developers from building multi-story, multi-family residential houses in single-family home areas.
“This is my whole M.O.,” Graziano said. “For me, it’s about taking care of my neighborhood.”
A lifelong resident of North Flushing, Graziano, 46, has worked on land use issues since he was 22 years old. The challenger estimated that he has been involved in the rezoning of close to 3,000 blocks in northeast Queens, including saving 300 blocks, roughly 6,000 homes, from becoming multi-family housing zones. Instead, they became single-family, anti-McMansion areas.
“We were able to rezone pretty much every neighborhood almost exactly the way I designed it,” Graziano said, “which to me, is almost unheard of.”
Downzoning neighborhoods also means stopping “bad developments” from happening, he said. For example, in 2015, Graziano said he received a call from two local civic groups from Auburndale and Station Road that a developer wanted to tear down Reception House on Northern Boulevard.
According to Graziano, the developer wanted to build a large commercial building with retail, a dental office and parking spaces. But Graziano noted that the area was zoned with “no commercial overlay.”
Additionally, that particular block has private deed restrictions dating back 100 years.
“Even if you get a rezoning here, we will take you to court and we will have them overturned,” Graziano recalled telling the developer.
The planning expert said council members have “utter authority” over land use decisions in their neighborhoods, noting that the City Council typically votes in line with the wishes of the individual council member, which is why the seat is so important.
If elected, the first bill he would introduce is legislation to create a design district. According to Graziano, it would allow a neighborhood to have veto power over new construction.
“It brings the neighborhood to the level that it wants to protect or induce development. I think it should be done everywhere,” he said. “That would take power away from the city and put it in the hands of the community.”
Graziano would also work with the city to enforce protective covenants that limit what developers can build in a certain area. Additionally, he would push for an opt-out program for bioswales, which many northeast Queens homeowners have complained about.
In the challenger’s 2013 bid for City Council, he competed in a five-way race in the Democratic Primary. Collecting 1,602 votes, or 17 percent, he finished in third place. Vallone, who tallied, 2,922 votes, or 31 percent, went on to win the primary and the seat.
But in this year’s primary, Graziano fared much better, giving him hope that unseating Vallone is within reach. He took home 2,596 votes, nearly 45 percent, and fell short by about 600 votes.
Out of all of the challengers who took on incumbents across the city, Graziano came the closest.
“I didn’t just do good, I did the best in the whole city,” he said. “To me, the only thing I’m angry about is losing.
“I knew I was going to do well, I thought I had a very good chance of winning,” he added. “I came extremely close.”
Throughout his campaign, Graziano alleged that Vallone’s campaign was committing “massive fraud and forgery” during the petitioning process, including employing underaged teenagers to collect signatures and even forging signatures.
Although Graziano lost in the Democratic Primary, the challenger said it “speaks volumes that I almost took him down.” This time around, he has the support of the Reform Party and hopes the Democrats who voted for him in the primary will follow him to that line in the general election.
But Graziano doesn’t see himself as an ideological person. He used to be in the Green Party, which he said was “very independent.” Ultimately, he sees his ideology as “neighborhood.”
“If it affects my neighborhood, I would be the first person to say no,” he said. “What I care about is what’s happening on my street or in my neighborhood. I’m not connected to anybody. I am only interested in protecting my community.”
Now that he’s raising his family, including his 19-month-old son in the house next to his parents, Graziano, reiterating a campaign slogan, said he’s in it to “protect our neighborhoods.”
“I want to continue living in my neighborhood,” he said. “That’s why I’m doing this.”