Putting the Tension in Detention
City Council Approves de Blasio Controversial Plan for New Jail Complex in Lower Manhattan; Legal Challenges Likely
The administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio won City Council approval on October 17 for a modified version of its controversial plan to erect a new, skyscraper prison in Lower Manhattan, as part of a wider scheme to close the City’s notorious detention complex on Rikers Island, and replace it with four, large “borough-based jail” facilities-one in each county, except Staten Island.
At the session during which the plan was approved, City Council member Margaret Chin said, “to my constituents-I hear you. This was not a perfect process. From the beginning, we fought for greater transparency, community engagement, and a stronger plan that addressed your concerns about construction impact, public health, safety, and community investment.”
This was a reference to widespread criticism of the procedure under which the de Blasio administration pushed the scheme toward approval, which grouped all four borough-based jails into a single legal review, and offered far fewer details than is usually the case when publicly owned land is being committed to a proposal.
“But it’s helpful to remember,” she continued, “that the Manhattan Detention Center has co-existed with the neighborhood for decades. And the plan for rebuilding a new site is not creating a new jail, but will transform the Manhattan Detention Center into a more humane and safe facility.” This was a reference to the aspect of the de Blasio plan that envisions demolishing the current jail complex at 124 White Street, and replacing it with a larger structure.
“I want to thank my constituents for their passion and advocacy,” Ms. Chin continued, noting, “because of them, we were able to secure a health and safety plan for the senior residence at Chung Pak, funding for community space, and construction mitigation.” This was a summary of concessions that Ms. Chin negotiated from the de Blasio administration, including multiple upgrades to the Chung Pak complex, which includes 88 units of affordable housing for the elderly, 15,000 square feet of community facilities, and multiple retail spaces that are home to small businesses. (Ironically, the Chung Pak complex itself was built in the 1980s, as a concession to local community activists who opposed the creation of the current Manhattan Detention Complex.)
Under Ms. Chin’s plan, Chung Pak will receive an extension on its lease through the year 2078, along with extended affordability protections for residents, while small businesses housed within the complex will receive $1.3 million in rent credits. Ms. Chin also negotiated commitments from City Hall for $10 million in upgrades to the adjacent Columbus Park, a promise that local public spaces will not be commandeered for construction staging, and funding for a new performance space in the nearby Museum of Chinese in America, along with an elevator at a building of Mulberry Street that houses multiple non-profit organizations.
But perhaps the most significant giveback that Ms. Chin obtained from the de Blasio administration concerns the overall bulk of the structure. “Working with residents,” she explained, “we were able to secure a significant height reduction from 450 to 295 feet. This 155-foot drop ensures that the proposed jail will not be out of scale with the neighborhood.”
But it may be worth noting, that this compromise — although shrinking by about one-third the edifice the de Blasio team originally planned — still allows for a new prison that will tower over the current structure. (The existing jail consists of two towers: one nine stories and one 14 stories.)
“Today, we are offered a choice,” Ms. Chin reflected. “Do we finally condemn the moral stain that is Rikers Island to the history books? Or do we let this opportunity slip by? We can no longer tell those who are trapped in a horrific cycle of incarceration to wait. We must turn the page.”
“Today’s vote is not the end of our work to create a truly fair criminal justice system,” she observed. “We must continue to invest in our communities, move people with serious mental health needs out of our jails, expand alternatives to incarceration, and end the broken policies designed to target marginalized people of color. This is the right thing to do, and we are not going to give up.”
“Seizing this opportunity was not a decision I came to lightly,” Ms. Chin concluded. “I got called all kinds of names. But it doesn’t matter, because this is the right thing to do.” Critics of the de Blasio plan, who are unimpressed by City Hall’s concessions, or the compromises negotiated by Ms. Chin (about which they voice skepticism), reacted with fury to the City Council vote approving the project.
Nancy Kong, a Downtown community leader who has spearheaded local opposition to the plan through the grassroots organization Neighbors United Below Canal, and helped build a City-wide coalition in the group Boroughs United, criticized the Mayor, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and Ms. Chin for not having, “the courage or fortitude to work with the community and criminal justice advocates — the real advocates and not ones positioned to benefit financially from this $11 billion jail/real estate development and privatization plan — to truly come up with a viable solution that begins today, not 10 years from today.”
Ms. Kong added, “size was not the only issue with the siting of these facilities. The manner in which these sites were selected was negotiated by elected officials and predetermined, prior to communities being informed by the City. The City’s process to certify this plan was undemocratic and a farce.”
She continued, “the lack of accountability and ability to address the current conditions in Rikers and across all New York City detention centers today speak volumes about the lack of leadership, vision and understanding of real criminal justice reforms.” She characterized the plan as, “tone-deaf. Investing $11 billion to $33 billion in jails instead of investing in communities, in education, in mental health and drug treatment facilities, in diversion/re-entry programs fixes nothing.”
Opponents of the borough-based jails plan are now considering a court challenge based on multiple arguments, including alleged flaws on the legally required Draft Environmental Impact Statement that preceded the City Council’s vote of approval, and the de Blasio administration’s failure to hold new public hearings after they changed the site of the proposed jail complex from 80 Centre Street (its location in a earlier version of the plan) to 124 White Street.
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