On Monday, the clock began ticking on the approval process under which a plan by Mayor Bill de Blasio to build a new, high-rise jail in Lower Manhattan may move ahead, or could be derailed.
The proposal focuses on closing Rikers Island, the scandal-plagued facility in Queens that currently serves as the central detention complex for all five boroughs of New York City, and dispersing the City’s incarcerated population to new facilities located in four of the boroughs.
The protocol that started this week, known as the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), is a six-step process that takes approximately 205 days. The first of these milestones was reached on Monday, when the Department of City Planning certified that the de Blasio Administration’s application to move forward with the proposal was complete.
The second stage of the process is review by the Community Boards that will be affected by the proposal, in this case Community Board 1 (CB1), which covers Lower Manhattan, and Community Board 3 (CB3), which includes Chinatown. Both of these panels have already expressed grave reservations about the Mayor’s plan, and appear unlikely to approve it in its current form.
CB1 plans to take up this issue at the April and May meetings of its Land Use, Zoning, and Economic Development Committee, and then enact a resolution at the May meeting of the full Board. But the Community Board approval (or disapproval) is only advisory, and the ULURP review is likely to continue, regardless of their decisions. In any case, the Community Boards have 60 days to weigh in, or waive their right to do so.
In a third step, the plan next goes before Borough President Gale Brewer, who has indicated that she is sympathetic to the Mayor’s broad goal of closing Rikers Island, and replacing it with multiple, smaller jails. But Ms. Brewer has also expressed concern about the facility proposed for Lower Manhattan, especially with respect to outreach and community consultation by City Hall, which multiple critics have decried as insufficient. Because this project affects more than one Community Board, it will also go before the Borough Board, which Ms. Brewer chairs.
Even if Mr. de Blasio’s plan is rejected both by Ms. Brewer and the Borough Board (both of whom must render their verdicts within 30 days), ULURP can proceed to the fourth step: review and approval 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 derail 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. The idea has also faced stiff opposition from her constituents within CB1, and bitter condemnation from those in CB2. 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.
One avenue for opposing the de Blasio jail plan falls entirely outside of ULURP, however. A legal challenge to the process could, theoretically halt (or delay indefinitely) implementation of the proposal. There appear to be multiple possible grounds for such litigation. The first of these is that the de Blasio administration has bundled into a single ULURP action its plans to create separate jails in four boroughs (each one other than Staten Island). This merging of the ULURP review for disparate projects in widely separated locations appears to be without precedent.
Second, there was no opportunity for public input when City Hall abruptly changed its plan last November from building a new jail at 80 Centre to demolishing the existing prison complex at 125 White Street, and erecting a new, 40-story detention facility on that site. (Critics also charge that a single ULURP spread across four boroughs will create a context in which opponents of the plan will be divided, disorganized and cut off from information, while its advocates will be the only relevant, credible voice in the dialog.)
This may violate the letter of ULURP requirements. In a related concern, ULURP requires that City Hall create a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for a land-use proposal. This was done for the de Blasio Administration’s original plan (for a new jail at 80 Centre Street), but such an Environmental Impact Statement was never completed for the revised plan, which envisions a jail at 125 White Street.
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