City Pitches Jail Tower to Community Board 1 in Start of Approval Process

The view east on White Street from Broadway. At right, an "illustrative building massing," not a finished design, that indicates a conceptual building of the size that could be built, as now proposed. From Draft Environmental Impact Statement/New York City Department of Correction

Apr. 16, 2019

The city’s approval process for a proposed 450-foot-high jail on the edge of Chinatown got off to an emotionally charged start last week as residents who oppose the facility’s massive scale were challenged by members of an advocacy group of former inmates and other activists. The activists, on a campaign to close Rikers Island, were there to support the city’s plan.

The standing-room-only hearing on April 8 at Southbridge Towers, before Community Board 1’s Land Use, Zoning and Economic Development Committee, also brought complaints from some committee members who said the city’s presentation was vague on details about the projects potential impact on the neighborhood.

The de Blasio administrations borough-based jail proposal calls for a 1.27-million-square-foot modern facility, housing 1,440 beds, that would replace the two current jail buildings, at 124 and 125 White Street, tripling their size. Many in Chinatown say that a building of that size would dwarf the neighborhood. And years of construction, they also complain, would afflict residents, especially the elderly, and hurt small businesses. The building is anticipated to be completed in 2027.

The public hearing was round one of a six-month environmental and land use review of the plan, which would require a Special Permit from the City Planning Commission to build the Manhattan jail about one-third larger than zoning now allows.

A PowerPoint presentation on the plan by administration officials was much the same as the committee had seen before, prompting committee member Alice Blank, an architect, to complain that she had expected a comprehensive discussion of the Draft Environmental Statement (DEIS)—the subject of the review—that would include the jail’s potential impacts on the community.

“I would have hoped that there would have been a much more detailed review of what this project really is in terms of looking at the existing conditions, pictures, maps and much more information.”

“I thought there would be a much longer presentation where people could react to many different things,” Blank added.

Jason Friedman, another architect on the committee, said that a lack of site photos, in a neighborhood with so many small buildings, “doesn’t make it possible to weigh in on the zoning implication on the neighborhood.”

Massing and shadows studies included in this article are taken from the 720-page DEIS that covers the four jail projects, and were not shown by the city at the hearing.

Responding to concerns raised about the impact of demolition and construction on the neighborhood, especially on the Chung Pak senior residence adjoining the current Manhattan Detention Complex, Julia Kerson from the Deputy Mayors Office for Operations, promised “extremely sensitive and conservative methods,” and a “robust” air and noise monitoring program, among other measures.

“It’s not uncommon in this city to build close to other buildings,” Kerson said.

“I get all that,” replied committee member Paul Goldstein. “Yes, construction does go on adjacent to other buildings and facilities, and believe me, we hear about those problems constantly.”

Activists from the advocacy organization JustLeadershipUSA and others dismissed the objections of opponents as trivial compared to an urgency to close scandal-plagued Rikers Island and invest resources into mental health, housing and other programs.

“You all are talking about the building height and a parking lot,” said one speaker, referring to complaints about impacts to traffic and parking. “These are real human beings that are going to be put in cages and people don’t deserve to be put in cages, right?”

“I’m disgusted to hear that y’all don’t even want to have a new jail when 90 percent of the people who are incarcerated in the Department of Corrections are black and brown Latin people. Not any of you that are opposing this tonight!” another woman exclaimed.

Angry assertions by activists that anti-black and Latino bias, and “privilege” are fueling opposition from the Chinatown community were met with boisterous jeers of denials from the audience, at times turning the hearing into shouting matches between the two groups. Some criminal justice reform activists in the audience, mostly African Americans and Latinos, held signs saying, “I Am Human.” That prompted at least one Asian-American woman to make a sign of her own, reading “Local Residents are Human.”

The activists were on hand to buttress the city’s argument that Rikers Island must be shut down, testifying to its “traumatizing” and “dehumanizing” conditions, as former inmates described them.

City officials emphasize that such towering facilities are needed to provide enough space for the humane conditions and support services that justice reforms require. “It’s about reducing the [jail] population, it’s about culture change and it’s about how borough-based facilities can help support that culture change,” Dana Kaplan of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, said of the administration’s plans. “I think all of us in this room have the shared commitment to make sure that this is a new opportunity for New York City’s criminal justice system.”

Indeed, many opponents of the plan voiced their support for those goals, but not the way the city wants to see them achieved. “There’s more than one path to criminal justice reform that doesn’t involve building a high-rise jail in our community,” said Eric Dillenberger of the Walker Street Block Association. “And the idea that this is the only way this can go forward really strains credibility.”

On May 13 CB1’s Land Use, Zoning and Economic Development Committee will issue its resolution on the proposal, followed by a full-board vote later in the month. The next public hearing on the plan will be held by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and later by the City Planning Commission and City Council.