Despite Budget Crisis, City Forging Ahead with $8.7 Billion Jail Plans

Under the city's plan, the north and south towers of the Manhattan Detention Complex (24 White Street, right, and 125 White Street) will be demolished and replaced by a single structure on the two lots, rising some 30 stories and spanning White Street. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib 

Sep. 18, 2020

UPDATE 9/21/20: A State Supreme Court judge on Monday issued an injunction against the city’s plan to build a new jail at 124-125 White Street. The ruling, in support of a lawsuit filed by Neighbors United Below Canal, annuls the City Council’s approval of the jail, calling it “arbitrary and capricious, affected by error of law, and rendered in the absence of proper procedure.” Judge John J. Kelley wrote that the city acted improperly in its public environmental review of a new jail on White Street after it abandoned 80 Centre Street as the chosen location for the jail. The city, he said, must start over with the lengthy process of a new environmental review.

Despite the city’s yawning budget gap, officials are moving forward with a controversial $8.7 billion plan to build four borough-based jails, including a towering replacement for the Manhattan Detention Complex in Chinatown.

A Community Board 1 committee reacted with astonishment to a de Blasio Administration representative who informed them that consultants, holding the project’s $107.4 million program management contract, are forging ahead with preliminary work on the jails’ design and construction. (So far, $16 million has been paid to the contractors AECOM-Hill, according to a city source.)

“It’s my understanding that the funding that was allotted before has remained and the project will be continuing as planned,” Andrew Kunkes, Manhattan Borough director of the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit, told a remote meeting of CB1’s Land Use, Zoning and Economic Development Committee on Sept. 14. 

Alice Blank,  a committee member and the board’s vice chair, declared herself “shell-shocked.” 

“No change in plans given our current situation?” she asked.

“We’re in a budget crisis,” added Vera Sung, a CB1 member and outspoken opponent of the project. “The city is in deep trouble and yet you’re still moving forward, according to what you’re saying. I want to make sure I’m hearing this correctly.”

“Yes, Kunkes replied.

Kunkes said the city is “actively” developing guidelines that will be included in a request for proposals to potential builders. The timeline for responses to an eventual release of the requests is being reevaluated as a result of the Covid 19 pandemic,”  he said. A spokesman for the city’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC) later told the Trib that the city anticipates “limited delays” in the schedule.

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. Community Board 1 had opposed the project, citing numerous lingering questions still unanswered by the city. Last October the City Council approved the plan, which calls for closing Rikers Island and replacing it with a new jail in each borough except Staten Island. Several lawsuits have been filed to stop the projects, including one by Neighbors United Below Canal, which is opposing the Manhattan facility.

The board members not only were stunned that the planning process is moving ahead, but also angered that it is happening with an “outrageous” absence of public engagement. 

A catered, $20,000 invitation-only design workshop in February (with invitations handled by the offices of Councilwoman Margaret Chin, Borough President Gayle Brewer and City Hall) was attended by fewer than a dozen people unrelated to the project, people who attended said. Though many on the committee complained they weren’t informed of the meeting, Kunkes said there will not be another one. Instead, he said, there will be a future gathering to review the findings of the February meeting, with the opportunity for feedback. That news made the committee furious, especially in light of commitments to the contrary made to the committee in March by officials from the Mayors Office and citys Department of Design and Construction. (In a recording of the meeting, reviewed by the Trib, two city officials indicated a willingness to hold another design workshop due to the poor notification and turnout.)

“I will tell you it’s a flat slap in the face,” said CB1 Chair Tammy Meltzer. “To say there will be one meeting and we’ll give you an update doesn’t sound to me like this is a two-way conversation.”

Kukes said he would advocate for another design workshop. “I will make sure your passion is conveyed,” he said. 

In a statement to the Trib shortly following the original posting of this story, and in response to questions about the workshop that were posed to the Department of Design and Construction, DDC spokesman Ian Michaels said: “We are planning an additional, virtual design meeting that will provide community stakeholders with another opportunity to weigh in on elements of the new jail, in addition to reviewing input from the February meeting.

Still, it is the cash-strapped city’s determination to go forward with the project that for some is most galling. Committee member Rosa Chang said she was “horrified” by the news, especially in light of the city’s decision to halt construction of a planned public elementary school on Trinity Place. “To prioritize a plan of incarceration over education is just stunningly disappointing,” she said.