Brewer and the Big House
Borough President Expresses Concerns about Jail Plan, But Gives Okay
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer has given her approval to a plan by the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio to construct a 1.27 million-square-foot prison complex Downtown.
In a determination issued on Friday, Ms. Brewer wrote that, “there is an overwhelming sentiment that we must remember: Rikers Island must close.”
This was a reference to the primary impetus behind the Mayor’s proposal — a drive to shut down the City’s centralized detention complex (located on an island in the middle of the East River) and replace it with four satellite facilities, one located in each borough except Staten Island.
In Lower Manhattan, the plan would demolish the two jail towers of the existing Manhattan Detention Complex: one at 124 White, which is 13 stories tall; and another at 125 White Street, which is nine stories. These would be replaced with a single, 45-story tower, with room for 1,440 prisoners. That capacity would represent a 60 percent increase from the headcount at the existing Manhattan Detention Complex, which holds approximately 900 detainees. This would make the new facility only slightly smaller than Sing Sing Prison, in the Hudson Valley, which holds some 1,700 prisoners.
Ms. Brewer’s approval comes with a series of 13 non-binding caveats, such as calls to reduce the height and bulk of the proposed structure (currently planned to reach 450 feet), re-open Park Row (a major street closed since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001), and includes various community amenities.
This determination follows a June 11 Town Hall meeting, hosted by Ms. Brewer at Pace University, which was attended by more than 200 people. A strong majority of those who spoke voiced grave reservations with the Mayor’s plan. This followed condemnation of the proposal by a total of five Community Boards: one each in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, along with two in Manhattan. (Two panels weighed in for Manhattan because the site of the proposed new facility is located within Community Board 1, but is adjacent to the border with neighboring Community Board 3.)
The resolution by Community Board 1 on this matter amounted to a stinging rebuke of the Mayor and his plan. At its May 28 meeting, CB1 recommended that the City Planning Commission veto the proposal — based, in part, on what the panel called, “opaque site selection and lack of community input,” while describing the proposed structure, “grossly out of scale.”
The City’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) entails six steps for any proposed use of publicly owned land, such as the White Street location, where the de Blasio administration hopes to build the new jail.
The first of these was certification by the City Planning Commission of the application. Next came the verdict rendered by CB1 (following a similar resolution, by Community Board 3), which is legally required, but advisory. The third step was approval by the Borough President. While Ms. Brewer’s approval came with a request for modifications to the plan, these conditions (along with her decision) are only consultative, and thus not legally enforceable.
Thus, even if Mr. de Blasio’s plan had been rejected by Ms. Brewer, the ULURP process was still poised to proceed to its fourth step: review by the City Planning Commission. This body does have the legal authority to stop a proposal such as the de Blasio plan, provided that it weighs in within 60 days. But because a majority of its 13 members are appointed by the Mayor, approval appears to be a fait accompli.
The next meaningful chance to consider the plan comes in the fifth segment of ULURP, review by the City Council. Here, the outcome has the force of law, but is difficult to predict.
By tradition, the Council as a whole defers to the member within whose district a land use proposal falls. Council member Margaret Chin, while supportive of criminal-justice reform, has expressed serious skepticism about the Mayor’s vision for a new jail in Lower Manhattan.
But, in a high-profile push such as the one mounted by the de Blasio Administration, it is possible that other Council members may be successfully lobbied by City Hall to ignore convention and support the plan, regardless of how Ms. Chin votes. The City Council has 50 days to accept or reject the proposal.
The sixth, and final, step in ULURP is Mayoral Review. If the jail plan successfully runs each of the first five gauntlets in the process, however, approval by City Hall is a virtual certainty. All of these steps, in the aggregate, can take a maximum of 205 days — with some extensions possible if one or more steps must be repeated. This would peg the final decision for sometime in October of this year. But ULURP can also proceed much faster, and multiple published accounts say the de Blasio Administration is hoping to have final ULURP approvals in place by this summer.
Prior to the approval issued last Friday. Ms. Brewer had been a persistent critic of the de Blasio administration’s approach to community engagement on its jail plan. In September, she decried, “the administration’s disappointing rush to scope the project without adequate community input,” while also noting that, “an expanded detention complex in Lower Manhattan is necessary, but no project this sweeping should ever go forward without robust input and involvement from the surrounding community’s residents, businesses, civic organizations and service providers.”
In November, when City Hall abandoned an earlier plan to locate the new jail on Centre Street, she said, “the administration needed to change course on the location for the new facility, but the core problem here was that City Hall wanted to announce its plan before engaging with the community on how to craft it. I hope that in the coming weeks and months, City Hall will engage in a more bottom-up process that builds support in Chinatown and Lower Manhattan, makes people feel like they were actually heard, and improves the plan — instead of repeating the mistakes that got us here.” She added, “it’s not too much to ask that we restart the process, actually listen to the community, and get the land-use part of this right. The mayor must take the time to actually listen to what the neighborhood has to say, minimize the bad, and maximize the good.”
Ms. Brewer’s approval also parts company with two of the other three Borough Presidents whose constituents would have to live with a new prison in their midst. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz have both called for outright rejection of the de Blasio plan. Brooklyn Borough president Eric Adams, like Ms. Brewer, has recommended moving ahead with the Mayor’s proposal, but has attached multiple conditions to this acceptance.
Lower Manhattan-based critics of the Mayor’s plan were quick to express disappointment with Ms. Brewer’s decision. Nancy Kong, a spokesperson for Neighbors United Below Canal, said, “while we applaud Ms. Brewer’s efforts to identify many of the concerns raised by the residents, including seniors and families, and struggling small businesses directly affected by the demolition and construction of this jail plan, we are disappointed that it falls short of holding Mayor de Blasio accountable for the risks, danger and waste his plan presents to the community.”
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