Council Members Complain of Paucity of Details on Proposed Jail Plan

Left: On White Street, looking east from Broadway, the city's "illustrative building massing" of a 450-foot-high proposed jail tower at 124 and 125 White St. Right: Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who has a key vote on approving the city's four-jail construction plan, listens to city officials. "I really do have a problem with the height," she told them. Photos: Draft Environmental Impact Statement/NYC Dept. of Correction; Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib (Chin)

Sep. 09, 2019

At a packed City Council hearing last week, de Blasio administration officials were still unable to provide critical details on their controversial plan to build high-rise jails in each of the boroughs except Staten Island. 

The proposed plan for closing Rikers Island, now in the final stage of an environmental and land use review, includes building a massive 450-foot-high structure that would replace the current Manhattan Detention Complex at 124 and 125 White Street. At the 10-hour hearing, which included hours of testimony on both sides from the public, Council members complained about the absence of basic information, even as their vote looms next month.

Officials told the Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting and Maritime Uses that they could not say, for example, what the buildings will look like, how much they will cost, or how construction of the buildings will be phased.

“When will we have a completed plan that tells us when new facilities open and old facilities are closed and you start relocating people?” asked Councilman Keith Powers.

“We’re working on the plan right now,” replied Jamie Torres-Springer, first deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Design and Construction.I can’t give a specific timeline.”

“Do we have it before we vote on it in October?”

“I’m not sure that we will have it in full,” Torres-Springer replied. “But we can certainly provide you with further details as we develop them.”

Powers, who chairs the Council’s Criminal Justice Committee, evinced frustration with the officials, despite his expressed support for the proposal.

“There are communities here that are obviously concerned about what the plans are in their district,” he said, “but it is a little unfair to not have information about what the phasing will be like and what the plan will look like.”

Days before, the City Planning Commission approved the plan, allowing it to go to the City Council for a hearing and vote. Officials say the four-jail construction projects, meant to replace the scandal-plagued Rikers Island jails and create more humane facilities, would be completed in 2026.

The 1.27-million-square-foot building proposed for Chinatown, just east of Tribeca, would be 30 percent bigger than zoning currently allows. Community Board 1 opposed the plan, and community boards in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx rejected the proposed buildings in their neighborhoods.

The Council will be asked to vote on the four-jail construction plan without knowing its anticipated final cost, all of it to be borne by the city. Back when the administration predicted a jail population of 6,000, that estimate was $8.7 billion. Since then, the projected number of detainees is much lower. “Now that the population [estimate] has been reduced to 4,000,” asked committee chair Adrienne Adams of Brooklyn, “what is the updated cost of construction?”  

“We are sticking with that estimate,” Torres-Springer responded. “As we move through the design process we’ll be happy to talk about new details.”

Torres-Springer asked the committee to trust the city’s planned “design-build” process, which incorporates a yet-to-be-selected team of architects and construction firms that would develop the projects together “in a way that we expect to be cost effective, we expect fewer change orders, cost overruns and schedule delays,” Torres-Springer said.

Councilman Barry Grodenchik of Queens, was unconvinced. “We don’t have all the details and we’ll be asked to vote on this in a very, very short period of time,” he said. “So my admonition to you is that we need answers, and we need them before we vote.”

Councilwoman Margaret Chin, whose district includes the Lower Manhattan site, has been strongly criticized for not echoing the position of Community Board 1 and the many constituents who have spoken out against the mega-jail plan. At the hearing, she sought assurances that tenants and caregivers of Chung Pak, the senior residence that abuts the jail, will be protected from the problems that come with demolition and construction. And she asked for concessions from the city to make repairs to Columbus Park, to “address the needs” of small businesses in the area during the construction, and to find additional city-owned community space beyond the non-retail 16,000 square feet already promised.

And finally, “I really do have a big problem with the height,” she said. “It is going to tower over the senior building and the surrounding low-rise tenements. It’s going to be the tallest building there.” 

Chin said she is pushing the administration to reduce the size of the building by creating a separate facility to house and treat mentally ill detainees. Dana Kaplan, from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, said the city is studying the proposal. 

“We have to get details before we can vote,” Chin said.

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