Perjurious Promises about Penitentiary Plaza

Lower Manhattan residents have one more reason to be skeptical about any assurances from City Hall regarding givebacks to the community in exchange for acquiescing to a large new jail at the site of the current Manhattan Detention Complex (MDC).

At the January 22 meeting of Community Board 1 (CB1), district manager Lucian Reynolds recounted a meeting at which officials from the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, “acknowledged that the parking lot in front of MDC was actually a public plaza. This was part of the community benefits agreement for the first MDC.”

Community benefits agreements are legally binding promises to a neighborhood that it will receive amenities as a result of a large building project, in exchange for not opposing the plan. In fact, such agreements are often ignored or forgotten once the project has been completed.
A local case in point involves “privately owned public spaces,” or POPS, which enabled developers to erect taller buildings than otherwise would have been allowed, in exchange for promises to maintain unfettered access to public spaces such as arcades and lobbies. A 2017 report by City Comptroller Scott Stringer found that of 57 such POPS in Lower Manhattan, only eight were meeting legally required standards for public access, hours, or the availability of amenities.

In the case of the MDC, which was built in two stages (completed in 1983 and 1990), the community benefits agreement stipulated that the land in front of the entrance was supposed to be available for public use. Instead, this space has been coopted and turned into a parking lot for police and corrections vehicles.

In this context, promises that the design of the new prison complex currently being planned for the site (located on Centre Street, between White and Walker Streets) will include facilities intended to benefit local residents (such as a community center or library) will likely be viewed with suspicion.

Community Board 1 chair
 Anthony Notaro

At the same January 22 meeting, CB1 chair Anthony Notaro observed, “the administration is talking about taking down two high-rises, which total about half a million square feet, and replacing them with a single high-rise of about 1.4 million square feet. The impacts on this community — in terms of traffic, pollution, and security —  are going to be major.” This was a reference to the pair of towers that comprise the current MDC, and the much taller spire that de Blasio administration proposes to erect at this location.

“Everybody knows that criminal justice system needs to be reformed,” Mr. Notaro continued, in a reference to the de Blasio administration’s rationale for expanding the prison complex in Lower Manhattan, “but the impact on this community is also important.”

He added, “I attended a meeting of the Neighborhood Advisory Council, which is packed packed with people the Mayor has selected. We’re participating, but under protest, because this is a top-down process. It’s the opposite of what we’ve done at the Seaport Advisory Group, for example.” This was a reference to a panel of community leaders and local stakeholders who have volunteered to collaborate and seek consensus on plans to redevelop the South Street Seaport neighborhood.

“There, we’ve built, with the Borough President and our elected officials, a real grass-roots advisory process,” Mr. Notaro observed.

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