Council Approves Jail Tower Plan and Downtown Group Will Sue to Stop It

Councilwoman Margaet Chin, whose district includes Chinatown, where a new jail tower will be built to replace the current Manhattan Detention Complex, speaks in support of the plan. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Oct. 20, 2019

Rising to speak on the floor of the Council chambers on Thursday, Oct. 17, Councilwoman Margaret Chin defended the vote she was about to cast in support of a new jail tower in her district, on the edge of Chinatown, one of four borough-based jails in the city’s controversial plan to close Rikers Island.

“I got called all kinds of names but it doesn’t matter,” she said defiantly, “because this is the right thing to do and we cannot let this opportunity slip by.” 

Chin joined the Council members representing districts in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens that will be impacted by the new jails and whose support was crucial to passage of the required land-use action. The four agreed to back the plan, which passed 36 to 13, despite fierce opposition by many of their constituents, including all four community boards. On Oct. 6, an estimated 1,000 people marched through Chinatown in an 11th-hour effort to convince Chin and the other Council members to oppose the high-rise facilities.

Under the city’s plan, 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.

Calling Rikers Island a “moral stain,” Chin made it clear that her first priority was to see the notorious jail complex shuttered. “My duty as a City Council member cannot end at the edge of Lower Manhattan,” she said, adding, “Seizing this opportunity was not a decision I came to lightly. But there is no guarantee that New Yorkers will see a chance like this for a very, very long time.” 

Neighbors United Below Canal (N.U.B.C.), a group formed to oppose the plan, now say they will sue the city over what they claim has been an unlawful approval process. “Early next week we will consult with our legal team and take their advice when to file,” Christopher Marte, a co-founder of the group told the Trib on Saturday in a phone interview. “We are going to go forward with it.”

The action, known as an Article 78, will assert that the city should have allowed public review of its site change for the proposed Manhattan jail, and that its environmental impact statement lacked “critical information,” and contained discrepancies favorable to the city, Jan Lee, another N.U.B.C. co-founder, said in the same interview. 

“A judge may say, go back and do the work you were supposed to do,” Lee said. “Well, that could take a long time.”

Two days before the vote, the Council announced that the proposed height of the jails would be lowered, with the White Street tower reduced from 450 feet to 295 feet. “This 155-foot drop ensures that the proposed jail will not be out of scale with the neighborhood,” Chin said. The lower heights, city officials said, is based on new predictions that today’s population of 7,000 detainees will be reduced to 3,300 in seven years, when the jails are expected to be completed.  

Chin said she has secured promises from the administration that include demolition and construction safeguards for tenants in Chung Pak, the senior residence next door, as well as $10 million in improvements to the pavilion and bathrooms in Columbus Park. The city is also committing $30 million over two years to acquire space for a performing arts venue for the Museum of the Chinese in America.

Marte, State Committeeman of the 65th Assembly District and Chin’s chief rival in her 2016 bid for re-election, called the promised givebacks “crumbs.” “It’s not an adequate concession for what’s going to happen for 10 years and how much is going to be invested,” Marte said. (The city says the jails will be completed in 2026.)

Lee said much of the $8.7 billion for new jails should be “heavily pumped” into community social services. “We could see changes tomorrow,” he said. “We won’t see changes for anyone detained in Rikers Island for the next seven years.”

That position was echoed by some Council members who voted against the plan, saying that their communities should be equally funded. “We are saying that by not matching this plan dollar for dollar is that you can afford to incarcerate New Yorkers in newly built facilities, but we cannot afford to make long-term investments that would benefit the youth of today from being incarcerated tomorrow,” said Councilman Rafael Espinal, Jr., who represents parts of Brooklyn.

Others called the process rushed and too costly. Councilman Robert Holden, representing parts of Queens, said he wanted to see Rikers Island revamped, with new ferry and bus connections to the courts. “Nobody in this room has ever given a thought to reinvesting in Rikers and changing the culture there by transforming the facilities in a more humane criminal justice complex,” Holden said, adding, “Instead, we are voting on whether to build skyscraper jails in the middle of already congested communities without even seeing a complete design of the buildings.” 

But most Council members, like Chin, spoke of a moral imperative to seize the moment and accept the current plan, which includes $265 million in new spending on an expanded supervised release program for those awaiting trial, as well as violence prevention programs and programs meant to help reintegrate former inmates into society.

In an impassioned speech before the vote, Council Speaker Corey Johnson called the decision to approve the plan “one of the most significant votes of our entire career.”

“Rikers Island is a symbol of inhumanity and brutality and it is time for us to once and for all close Rikers Island,” he said. “What we are doing today will reshape the city for generations to come and will impact the lives of every New Yorker for decades.”

Asked earlier if he thought the plan could overcome future challenges, Johnson said he hoped that the successors to the three term-limited Council members, of the four representing jail-impacted districts, including Chin’s, “are committed to doing the right thing.”

“Is everything always foolproof? he said. “No. But we are trying to make this as tight as possible to start with these facilities and close Rikers Island down in the tightest way that we think is doable.” 

“In two years,” Lee, of the N.U.B.C., countered, “there’s going to be a whole new City Council, there’s going to be a new mayor, a new controller and when and how they decide to move forward is going to change a lot of the details that the city told us on Thursday.” 

Marte said he is considering another run to be one of those new Council members. He called the land use vote on the jails one of several in the 1st Council District “that have to be reconsidered.”

“Whoever becomes the next City Council person,”  he noted, “has to reevaluate and readjust these plans.”