Seniors Living Next to Proposed Jail Tower at Risk, Say Plan Opponents

Left: Nancy Kong and Jan Lee, leading opponents of the jail, show the proposed jail tower in relation to the Chung Pak senior residence, the Charles B. Wang health clinic and a daycare center, to Community Board 1's Land Use, Zoning and Economic Development Committee. Right: A Chung Pak resident leaves the building, located just south of Canal Street on Baxter. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Mar. 27, 2019

“You can see the detention center right here. We are touching each other.”

From a top floor terrace of Chung Pak, the 88-unit low-income senior housing building at 96 Baxter St., executive director Charles Lai was pointing to the Manhattan Detention Complex next door at 125 White St. There, he said, lay his fears for the future of his residents.

If the city has its way, the jail next door and the one connected to it at 124 White Street will be torn down. In their place a mammoth 450-foot jail tower will rise, part of the de Blasio administration’s plan to close Rikers Island and build jails in all the boroughs except Staten Island. The expected eight months of demolition and years of construction has Lai and other Chinatown opponents of the plan saying that the health of the elderly residents are at stake.

“We are just inches from 125 White,” said Lai, 62, who became the director of the residence three months ago. “Just common sense says that, no matter what you do, there’s going to be noise, there’s dust and particulate matter.”

For residents unable to get outside, Lai said, the garden rooftop, with its recently installed flower boxes and planned programming, is a chance to breathe fresh air. And for those who walk to local senior centers, he added, “how are they going to get around that high level of activity? It’s not just on an isolated corner. We are talking about anyone being able to get to where they need to go.”

The city has just released its lengthy Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the four-borough jail projects, setting in motion what will be a uniquely complex six-month public review. (The approval process is known as the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or U.L.U.R.P.). City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who must ultimately sign off on the Manhattan tower, said in a statement that she is withholding judgement until she has heard from the public at the upcoming hearings, “most importantly the residents and small businesses most directly impacted by this project.”

“In particular, we must have assurances that seniors living next door to the proposed project will be protected,” she said in the statement, adding, “this process is far from over—it is just beginning.”

Asked to comment on the concerns around potential impacts to the seniors, Patrick Gallahue, spokesman for the Mayor’s Office for Criminal Justice, said in a statement, “We continue to look at how construction can have a minimal impact on the lives of Chung Pak residents. We have also heard from the community and Council Member and recognize their concerns.”

With chants of “Save our seniors!” and “Stop this process!” those concerns were amplified on Monday as opponents rallied in front of City Hall to denounce the plan. “It’s absurd to think the city can mitigate 10 years of construction,” said Jan Lee, a leading opponent of the jail proposal. “It is unfair and unjust to put these people through this kind of ordeal.”

“Our elected officials who are in office now will not be in office when this building goes up,” said Christopher Marte, a former City Council candidate who is now the State Committeeman for the 65th District. “They will not be accountable for this construction.”

Administration officials insist that anything short of closing Rikers and building the four borough-based jails would fail to achieve the goal, set by the independent commission to close Rikers Island, of eliminating the isolation that makes visits to detainees by family members and lawyers difficult. And in Manhattan, they say, it only makes sense to build the jail in the same location as the current one, next to the Criminal Court building at 100 Centre St.

The plan is being fought in all four boroughs. Many opponents argue that a modern facility could be built on Rikers Island far less costly than the minimum $11 billion projected for the four new buildings, and they say it could be made accessible with ferries and other added transportation. They also question whether the current jail population of about 8,000 can be further brought down—and kept down—to the projected goal of 5,000 citywide.  

“We reject the spurious claim that criminal justice reform requires changing the physical location of detention centers at Rikers,” said Patricia Tsai of the Lin Sing Association, calling the proposed towering jails “flights of fancy by idealists, architects, and interior designers, a gift to the real estate industry.”

Along with its 104 residents, the Chung Pak complex also houses a community health clinic and daycare center that Lai and others say would be impacted by the construction. Twelve small retail businesses on the block pay rent to Chung Pak’s parent organization, five of them are located on the ground floor of the jail that would be demolished. Opponents of the jail plan say many Chinatown businesses are already struggling, and the lengthy construction, projected for completion in 2027, will only make their problems worse.

“We’re talking about a community that’s on the brink,” Lai said. “You'll have scaffolding happening, construction happening. Are people going to come over here? Absolutely not.”

The public review process for the jail plan begins next month with Community Board 1 and continues before the Manhattan Borough President, City Planning Commission and City Council. CB1’s Land Use, Zoning and Economic Development Committee is expected to review the plan on April 8 and vote on a resolution on May 13 before it goes to the full board later in the month.