Ray of Hope for Jail Tower Foes as Mayor Adams Now Looks for a 'Plan B'

Demolition of the Manhattan Detention Complex plaza. The interiors of the two buildings are also being torn out, but teardown of the structures themselves is yet to begin. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Jan. 18, 2023

Mayor Eric Adams said he is looking for an alternative to the city’s borough-based jail plans, giving a glimmer of hope to those who oppose a jail tower, the tallest in the world, slated for the edge of Chinatown. 

“We better have a Plan B,” Adams told Marcia Kramer in a CBS New York interview on Jan. 8.

More than 5,000 detainees are housed on Rikers Island and the number is expected to grow, far exceeding the 3,300-person capacity projected for the four borough-based jails that must be built by 2027. The City Council mandated that deadline for the closing of Rikers Island and Adams said his administration has convened a small working group, led by his chief counsel, Brendon McGuire, “to see what are our steps forward and what is the Plan B?”

“There are a number of things that we’re looking at and we want to present them to Adrienne Adams, the speaker, that she could put in front of her colleagues,” Adams said. “They’re going to look at the real numbers of where we are.” 

The original $8.5 billion estimate for the four jails has increased “astronomically,” Adams said, putting the number now at $10 billion. “We have to take all of this into consideration,” he said, while declining to say what alternatives are being reviewed. As a candidate, Adams came out strongly against a jail tower in Chinatown and has been roundly criticized by opponents for renegging on his promise to oppose it.

City Councilman Christopher Marte and other opponents of the Chinatown jail tower say the mayor should overhaul the existing two buildings of the former Manhattan Detention Complex as part of his “Plan B.”

“Now that we know the mayor is more open to projects,” Marte said in a phone interview, “and we know this [borough-based jail] project is going to cost much more than has been allotted, we think it’s a great opportunity for him to look at this space differently than the current plan.”

Marte, who is co-founder of Neighbors United Below Canal, a group formed in opposition to the Chinatown “megajail,” said that adapting the two buildings to more humane standards could save the city nearly a billion dollars, and house the detainees closer to the courts and their families. The demolition of the Manhattan Detention Center alone is estimated to cost $125 million.

Under the city’s plan, which calls for replacing Rikers Island with a new jail in every borough except Staten Island, the two buildings of the Manhattan Detention Complex at 124 and 125 White Street will be demolished and replaced with a single, 295-foot-high building that covers both lots and spans White Street. Opponents says that years of demolition and construction will be destructive to the surrounding neighborhood.

Currently, workers are demolishing the buildings’ interiors and plaza and doing asbestos abatement. They are also preparing to take down the bridge that spans the two buildings over White Street. But Marte notes that the contractors have yet to receive the permits for the demolition of the structures. 

“For this to be completed in four years, especially the size and scope and complexity and feasibility of the work, I believe it’s not possible to get all of that done,” Marte said. “So as the timeline continues to shrink, adaptive reuse of the buildings might be the only option.”

City officials have told the Trib that the renovation of 124 White Street, (aka The Tombs) would be “unfeasible” because the building “could not withstand the extent of the renovation required.” But in a letter last year to Adams, Peter Samton, the architect who headed the 1983 renovation of the Tombs, urged the mayor to reconsider the demolition of the structure. “A renovation to adapt and reuse the existing complex,” he wrote, “will be a significantly more cost-effective and environmentally sustainable solution which will help expedite the city’s closing of the jails on Rikers Island in 2027.”

A 2009 report by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation concluded that the criminal court building and south tower of the former Manhattan Detention Complex are together eligible for inclusion in the National Register. The report called the buildings “an impressive example of Moderne civic architecture in New York City” and significant for their association with the history of criminal law.

While some critics of the borough-based jail plan continue to argue that renovation of the existing Rikers Island facilities is the most sensible solution, Adams appears steadfast in sticking to the City Council mandate. “I have to follow the law,” he says. For Manhattan, that makes the reuse of the existing buildings “the only option that’s on the table now that is realistic, that can achieve both closing Rikers Island and building humane facilities,” Marte said.

“My office and other community stakeholders are going to keep on pushing this forward,” he added.