In what could be a major victory for Lower Manhattan community leaders and elected officials, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio has backed away from a plan to build a new, 40-story jail on top of a historic government office building at 80 Centre Street. This proposal was part of a broader push to shut down the City’s central detention facility, at Rikers Island, and disperse its detainees throughout a system of new, smaller prisons located in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Lower Manhattan.
In a story first broken by the Daily News, City Hall has decided to walk back from its initial conception of a high-rise prison perched above the existing Lefkowitz State Office building, which occupies the full block bounded by Centre, Worth, Baxter, and Leonard Streets.
This proposal, which was announced over the summer, provoked a firestorm of criticism — even from elected officials who support the goal of closing Rikers Island. Community leaders in all four boroughs where new jails are to be constructed were incensed by what they described as a lack of consultation at the neighborhood level. In Lower Manhattan, activists based in Chinatown, along with residents from all the neighborhoods surrounding the 80 Centre Street site, crowded multiple public meetings. The handful of these sessions attended by officials from the de Blasio administration turned into acrimonious shouting matches, with grassroots leaders accusing City Hall of trying to impose this plan from the top down, and then steamroll opposition by rushing the approval process.
Instead of 80 Centre Street, the de Blasio administration now intends to focus its plans on the existing Manhattan Detention Complex, at 125 White Street, which may be demolished and redeveloped as a larger prison. This fallback position may yet provoke similar opposition from a community that appears determined to prevent an influx of prisoners that could raise the local detainee population to more than the inmate populations of upstate correctional facilities like Attica and Sing Sing.
In the meantime, however, local leaders were quick to voice relief that the 80 Centre Street plan appears to be off the table.
The Manhattan Detention Complex (colloquially known as “the Tombs”), located at White and Centre Streets, may instead become the site for a new jail with a detainee headcount larger than that of the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York.
“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,” observed Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. “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.”
City Council members Margaret Chin said, “the Administration’s proposal to reconsider siting the Manhattan Detention Complex at 125 White Street is a sign that the community’s concerns and input about the future of this facility matter. By focusing the conversation on this existing detention site, we can ensure that this facility remains near the courts, and Columbus Park will no longer be placed under the shadow of a proposed 40-story jail at 80 Centre Street.”
“Let’s be absolutely clear,” she continued. “This moment would not be possible without elected officials, advocates and residents fighting to increase opportunities to engage in this process. There remains a great deal of work to be done to make sure that true community engagement is achieved.”
State Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou cautioned that, “the Mayor’s Office has yet to pull the draft scope of work and restart the process, like we asked. We still do not have all the information on their new plans. But community concerns, such as increased traffic congestion, potential economic impacts, poor neighborhood treatment by current facilities, and detainee treatment, remain unaddressed. Our top priority should be creating a process that engages our community in every step before a final decision is made. Changing the site does not change the fact that the City has failed to give our community the fair and transparent engagement process we deserve.” To foster a higher level of this kind of community participation, Ms. Niou will be hosting a community meeting today (Thursday, November 29) at 1:00 pm, in the New York Chinese Community Center (62 Mott Street, between Canal and Bayard Street), to consult with residents about next steps.
Community Board 1 chair Anthony Notaro reflected that, “Lower Manhattan should be relieved. Whatever the administration’s rationale, true community engagement, transparency and a balance of the needs of all stakeholders are paramount. Hopefully, this scenario helps us get to that position.”
Lower Manhattan District Leader Christopher Marte said, “after advocating for months, we were able to highlight some of the major issues with the City’s process and the lack of engagement with local residents. This announcement is a win for our neighborhood, but I will continue to monitor this issue closely as the City decides where to relocate the jail. I look forward to real community engagement in future discussions about the size, scope and design of a new jail.”
Nicholas Stabile and Nancy Kong of the local grassroots organization Neighbors United Below Canal, which played a leading role in opposition to the 80 Centre Street plan, said they were, “encouraged to learn that the Mayor heard some of our community’s concerns and removed 80 Centre Street from the list of potential sites for a Manhattan facility. This is a small victory for the activists in our community who came together to highlight major issues with the City’s process.”
“However, we are disappointed that the Mayor has selected a new site for the Manhattan facility — 125 White Street — without true community engagement about whether and where to build a new jail in Lower Manhattan,” they continued. “More broadly, while we support efforts to reform the criminal justice system guided by the humane aspects of incarceration, the Mayor has unfortunately elected to push forward the process of building borough-based jails without answering fundamental questions about his plan to close Rikers Island and build 6,000 new jail cells.”