Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Council member Margaret Chin, and State Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou are all urging City Hall to “stop the clock” on the scoping process, a legally required step before major land use decisions (such as the de Blasio plan to build a 40-story prison at corner of Centre and Worth Streets) can be implemented.
All three officials have repeatedly criticized the administration’s approach to the controversial plan. After an abrupt announcement in August, when the City acknowledged that it was proposing a new correctional facility at 80 Centre Street, a series of angry public meetings followed in September and October. Although these sessions aired near-unanimous criticism of the plan, City Hall did not cancel or modify its plans. After the hearings, the City was free to begin drafting its Environmental Impact Statement, which is intended to gauge the consequences for the surrounding community. Once this step is complete, the path will be clear for the City to enter the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) process, after which it could begin construction.
Ms. Brewer, Ms. Chin, and Ms. Niou are all demanding that the City restart this process from the beginning, by engaging in community outreach that they say never occurred.
“Criminal justice reform and true community input on important land-use decisions are not mutually exclusive,” said Ms. Chin. “No excuse can justify the flagrant lack of community engagement we have seen in a process that will determine the future of a Detention Complex with a long and troubling history in our Downtown community.”
Ms. Brewer 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. Niou observed that, “the process our community has had thus far largely lacks what true community-based decision making should look like. Our community received zero community engagement. The Mayor and his administration must reconsider their actions and start this process from the very beginning with a process that focuses on the most important part of any land use decision: community engagement. This process includes being transparent on all aspects of the future plans for the borough based detention center system.”
City Hall’s desire for a new jail facility in Lower Manhattan stems from Mayor de Blasio’s determination to close Rikers Island, the scandal-plagued facility in Queens that currently serves as the central detention complex for all five boroughs of New York City. It is there that prisoners awaiting trial, denied bail, or serving sentences of less than one year are sent. The Mayor is determined to shut this facility entirely, and replace it with four borough-based jails — one each in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.
If even one-fifth of the current Rikers Island prisoner headcount of approximately 9,000 detainees are moved to a new Manhattan facility, that would mean 1,800 prisoners being assigned to that complex, along with the 900-plus already housed within the nearby Manhattan Detention Complex (at White and Centre Streets), which the administration plans to close and redevelop. This would make the detainee population of such a facility larger than that of Attica prison, in upstate New York.
But these figures may be understated. According to, “A More Just New York City,” a report by the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, fully 38 percent of the jail population throughout the five boroughs comes from courts and prosecutors in Manhattan. “No other borough comes close,” the report notes, adding that this preponderance of prisoners is disproportionate to Manhattan’s share of the overall criminal caseload throughout the City, which comes to just 29 percent. This gap may be attributable, the report observes, to “prosecutorial patterns in Manhattan [pointing to] higher rates of pretrial detention and more punitive plea offers.”
But siting a new jail within Lower Manhattan also raises serious urban planning questions. The number of attorneys and family members likely to visit a facility housing more than 3,000 prisoners could further obstruct already an already-crowded streetscape. The number of guards and administrative personnel needed to staff and run such a complex (along with the fleet of large vehicles need to transport that many prisoners) might exacerbate this local crowding further still.
“Closing Rikers and moving to borough-based detention facilities is the right call,” Ms. Brewer allowed, “but it’s also a decision with huge consequences that will play out over decades.”
In a joint letter to the Mayor, dated October 26, Ms. Brewer and Ms. Chin wrote that, “while we remain staunch supporters of criminal justice reform, and fully support the closing of Rikers Island, we also believe that the City has fallen short of its obligation to engage the Lower Manhattan community in a transparent and inclusive conversation about the site selection process. To that end, we are asking for a reset of the scoping process to consider fully all possible sites. Furthermore, we invite you to join us at a forum to be scheduled in Chinatown to discuss the City’s criminal justice reform efforts and to address some of the core concerns raised by residents to date regarding the community engagement process.”