Local Leaders Outraged by Abrupt Approval for Demolition at Jail Complex
Elected officials representing Lower Manhattan and members of Community Board 1 (CB1) erupted in outrage last night, April 19, at the surprise announcement by representatives from the City’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC) that they have obtained the necessary permits to begin demolition of the Manhattan Detention Complex (MDC) at 125 White Street.
This initiative is a component of the larger borough-based jail program, launched in 2017 under then-Mayor Bill de Blasio, who committed to closing the scandal-plagued Rikers Island (the City’s centralized detention facility) within a decade, and replacing it with four new jails—one in each borough except Staten Island. For Lower Manhattan, this will mean years of demolition and construction as MDC is razed and then replaced with the world’s tallest correctional facility.
Among Lower Manhattan residents, the plan to demolish and rebuild MDC—which is officially priced at $9 billion, although skeptics predict it will likely cost many billions more—has become a flashpoint, largely because of the environmental and health hazards that years of demolition and construction would impose on the surrounding community. Once the project is complete, critics also anticipate extremely congested local streets as thousands of staff and support personnel report to the new facility each day.
In lieu of this plan, CB1 and a coalition of elected officials proposed adaptive reuse of the existing building, which they contend would bring it up to current codes and standards in far less time than a new structure could be built, and at a fraction of the cost.
Hopes for this option were raised at a March 2 meeting at which State Senator Brian Kavanagh, State Assembly member Grace Lee, and City Council member Christopher Marte all pushed senior officials in the administration of Mayor Eric Adams to pause their demolish-and-rebuild plan and give further study to adaptive reuse. (Indirect encouragement was also derived from the fact that the Adams administration, after 15 months in office, had not yet signed off on the formal permits that would allow demolition to start.) That meeting ended with an informal agreement that City officials would provide documentation about their internal deliberations regarding the MDC project, following which the same stakeholders would meet again.
At last night’s meeting of CB1’s Quality of Life Committee, DDC Associate Commissioner Jeffrey Margolies surprised the assembled community leaders and elected officials by announcing that the necessary permits are in hand, and that demolition work will begin imminently. “This was a collective decision by City Hall, the Department of Corrections, and DDC to move forward with the current plan as is,” he said.
Assembly member Grace Lee replied, “we had a meeting where the DDC promised that we would be receiving documentation to justify their decision for moving forward with the jail. We did not receive that documentation. We were also promised a follow-up meeting to discuss this further. We want this demolition halted until we have that next meeting.”
Mr. Margolies answered, “I attended that meeting on March 2, and my recollection is that I actually helped facilitate some of that information being transferred. I believe all the documents you requested were provided. I could be mistaken.”
Senator Kavanagh said, “the City made specific commitments at that meeting to provide whatever information you have, and that we would then have further conversations about the community’s desire that there would be an Request for Proposals to determine whether adaptive reuse is possible. There were firm commitments to that.”
“It feels like the City is making a decision very specifically to ignore commitments that were made to us last month,” he added. “The community needs to have at least a minimal level of confidence that this decision is being made on a reasonable basis, based on the actual facts of what is possible with this building. The City is stonewalling us, and it is really unacceptable.”
Mr. Margolies said, “we’ll pass that on to City Hall, but there were extensive conversations and this is the plan that the City has decided upon. There were some phone calls made to the elected officials the other day.”
Ms. Lee shot back, “I didn’t receive any call from City Hall on this.”
Mr. Kavanagh said, “the way to make this better is to rescind this decision that is being made in spite of specific commitments that you made six weeks ago.”
“This is extremely disrespectful and truly unprofessional,” City Council member Christopher Marte fumed (pictured here at a rally earlier this year to protest the jail demolition plan). “There were commitments made at that meeting that haven’t been fulfilled. The City has failed this community. There should definitely be a pause on even taking a piece off of that building until there has been a real discussion with the elected officials and the Community Board.”
Afterward, he added, “I am outraged at this unacceptable behavior from City Hall. Without any notice, these permits were internally approved. We have been working on alternatives for years, and have been told since the early days of this administration that they were considering our proposals. We now know this to be a lie. I call on Mayor Adams to halt this sham process.”
Jan Lee, a Chinatown community leader, who is a co-founder of the Civic Center Residents Coalition and Neighbors United Below Canal, said, “How dare you come to our community to announce that you are moving forward with demolition after sending notice to a select few people in the community?
“Be prepared,” he warned. “We are going to come full force at upcoming meetings, and in the streets.”
CB1 member Vera Sung said, “I’m not frustrated; I’m actually disgusted with the way this process has gone forward. The methodology and process by which you are moving ahead is just trying to blindside this community, which is completely unacceptable. It is very clear to me that the City wishes the community to be left in shambles with a hole in the ground and nothing there.”
“We came forward with a win-win solution and asked you to look at it in good faith, and you refused and haven’t given one good reason as to why,” she continued.
Vittoria Farrielo, a Democratic Party district leader said, “it’s still not too late to do the right thing. The City doesn’t need to move forward tomorrow or the next day. It is important to pause and actually think and talk to the community, and consider something that is so much more viable and appropriate for what the community and the City need.”
CB1 chair Tammy Meltzer said, “the City has decided not to listen to the community. I’m really at a loss here how City government works for the people of New York.”
“We didn’t get information until less than a month ago about what the City had in its Capital Project Scoping Development [CPSD] study,” she continued. “It is disgusting that we had to FOIL that document for years.”
“From sitting on the Neighborhood Advisory Council, I can tell you that the CPSD is factually wrong,” she continued. “This truly feels as if the City finally realized what their problem is, and therefore pulled the rug out really quickly, before the public could be heard.”
Addressing Mr. Margolies directly, she said, “sitting here and listening and saying very nice platitudes changes nothing. When we turn out to be correct, and you fail to meet your deadlines and go over-budget, we will pay the price. And that is not what we elected the Mayor for.”