In Jail Tower Fight, Chinatown Banker Backs Possible Lawsuit Against City

Left: Thomas Sung, founder and chairman of the Abacus Federal Savings Bank, announces his financial support of jail opponents. Right: On White Street. looking east from Broadway, the city's "illustrative building massing" of a jail tower that could be constructed as proposed. Sung photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib; massing rendering: Draft Environmental Impact Statement/NYC Department of Correction

Jul. 28, 2019

A prominent Chinatown banker is putting financial muscle behind the fight to stop the city’s plan for a massive jail tower at the border of Chinatown and Tribeca.

Thomas Sung, founder and chairman of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, announced that he is supporting a potential lawsuit against the city by Neighbors United Below Canal (N.U.B.C.), a group that claims the de Blasio administration is illegally pushing through its plan for a 450-foot-high jail at 124-125 White Street. The proposed jail, opposed by Community Board 1, is part of the city’s plan to eventually close Rikers Island and house detainees in four new “borough-based” jails.

“We have engaged a law firm and prepared a very extensive study informing the public how horrendous this project is, how damaging it would be to our community and not only the residents but also small businesses,” Sung said at a press briefing on Thursday.

The formal complaint, a 37-page document with 187 pages of attachments, prepared by the law firm of Zarin & Steinmetz, alleges a slew of procedural and other violations perpetrated by the city in its rush to gain the required approvals for the plan. The six-month land use and environmental review process now underway should be restarted with a new Draft Environmental Impact Statement, the lawyers say. In the near certain event that the city fails to agree, the opponents say they will file an Article 78 proceeding against the city, arguing that officials did not follow the city’s own rules for protecting the community.

“We are telling the city that you are doing this wrong,” Sung said. “If the city does not listen to the voice of the people then it’s our obligation to stand up, and commence the proceedings.”

Among the filed complaints, the opponents’ lawyers claim the city should have held new public sessions on the scope of potential impacts to the neighborhood when it changed its proposed site from 80 Centre Street to 124-125 White Street. They also call the city’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement “so full of holes and lacking of critical information” that it is illegal, and say it fails to consider public health concerns.

A spokesman for the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice declined to respond to the opponents’ specific complaints. In a statement, he said that the review proecess for the borough-based jails “has provided numerous opportunities for meaningful public engagement, including the ability for the public to comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). All public comments received on the DEIS will be considered in the Final Environmental Impact Statement.

The city’s plan calls for demolishing the two jail buildings that comprise the Manhattan Detention Complex, at 124 and 125 White St., and building a more than 1.2 million-square-foot tower on the two sites, with a de-mapped White Street running through it. Officials and others who support the plan emphasize the urgency to close the scandal-ridden Rikers Island and say that such towering facilities are needed to provide enough space for the humane conditions and support services that justice reforms require. They also see a need for the facility to be close to the Manhattan Criminal Court next door at 100 Centre St.

With the proposed new jails not expected to be ready until 2026, according to the city, opponents say their actions will not prolong the operation of Rikers Island or be a barrier to criminal justice reform. Jan Lee, an N.U.B.C co-founder, points to a history of “failures” at the site of the proposed jail tower; the current facility at 125 White Street was completed in 1990, and in 1983, 124 White Street underwent a $42 million renovation. Believing this latest plan will succeed, he said, “is just removing all of your suspicion from the city and saying that the same city that failed two times before in my community is suddenly going to improve. That’s the suspension of belief that we want people to understand.”

While Sung is financing the groundwork for the legal action, the bulk of the money for a lawsuit—estimated between $75,000 and $100,000—must be raised from other sources. “We don’t know what the public will do in supporting our efforts,” Sung said. “But we will try.”

“We have to scrape and we have to collect and we have to contribute,“ said N.U.B.C. leader Nancy Kong. “We are up against the city. It’s David and Goliath.

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Don't replace Rikers with new modern horrors

The construction of this monstrosity in the midst of a bustling residential area of Manhattan is an outrage. So is the jail itself. At a time that the country is finally starting to recognize that the incarceration of millions of people, most of them non-violent offenders, not to mention the holding for trial of hundreds of thousands of mostly people of color and poor whites who simply can't post bail, which is what fills these obscene jails, New York City is building a massive compound to house thousands of people in each of four boroughs?

Who came up with this reactionary idea anyhow?

If anything, the city should be moving away from mass incarceration. It should also not be replacing the medieval horror of Rikers with four new modern horrors. Jails of this size are going to be, by definition massive, unmanageable nightmares for both the inmates and the people who have to control those inmates. If the city's going to move away from gigantism in its prisons and jails, it should scatter small ones throughout the city—facilities where the inmates will be treated as human beings and be known to jailers.

Down with this wretched project!