Unwelcome News About Jail Demolition Flew Mostly Under the Radar
Last Thursday evening, immediately before the start of the Memorial Day weekend, an email message from a City official representing the administration of Mayor Eric Adams was received by a handful of Lower Manhattan residents (but very few community representatives), announcing that a pledge by City Hall to pause the controversial demolition of the Manhattan Detention Complex (MDC) was being reversed.
Patrick Kwan, a senior advisor in the Community Affairs Unit of the Mayor’s office, wrote, “after pausing demolition work for two months… the administration is continuing the ongoing dismantling of the Manhattan jail site and not pursuing the adaptive reuse proposal.” This was a reference to a plan championed by elected officials, local activists, and community leaders, to refurbish (rather than demolish and replace) the MDC complex, with the aim of bringing it into compliance with current laws, codes, and standards in less time than a new structure could be built, and at a fraction of the cost.
“The approved plan, currently in motion, to demolish the existing structures and build a new facility on this site is the only way to keep the community safe while complying with requirements under city, state, and federal regulations,” Mr. Kwan continued. “It will deliver a better outcome for taxpayers and community members concerned about disruptive construction or environmental impacts.”
Community leaders responded with vitriol to what they perceived as an attempt to adumbrate an announcement that was sure to be unpopular.
Jan Lee, a co-founder of Neighbors United Below Canal and the Chinatown Core Block Association, said, “the community found the email both troubling and disconcerting as the notification was not sent to any of the organizations that have been actively engaged in negotiations with the City on behalf of the community regarding the jail, namely the Chinatown Core Block Association, Neighbors United Below Canal, and Welcome to Chinatown. The email was also not sent to members of Community Board 1.”
“To date, the community has received zero documentation to allay its concerns, zero documentation on what the design of this structure will be—although that has been shared with outside bidders, zero documentation on how the City’s plans will be executed, and zero documentation of a timeline from demolition to a structure being built,” Mr. Lee continued.
Vic Lee, a co-founder of the Welcome to Chinatown community organization, added, “from the outset, the manner in which the City dealt with the community has lacked transparency, honesty and good faith. As a mayoral candidate, Eric Adams stood with the community and proclaimed that there would be no new jail in Chinatown, no mega-jail in Chinatown. However, as it appears now, these were false promises.”
Jan Lee added, “this recent communication from Mr. Kwan demonstrates how the community’s hopes have been repeatedly dashed as the Mayor’s Office chooses to continue to perpetuate this irrational and dangerous plan to build a mega-jail in Chinatown, which is a lose-lose-lose proposition for the detainees, the City and the community.”
These concerns were echoed by elected officials. City Council member Christopher Marte said, “while the Mayor’s office has decided to lift the pause, they remain vague as to why. They have been pushing a narrative that adaptive reuse isn’t possible, but in the meetings we have had with the administration, elected officials, and community leaders, not a single City official can explain their reasoning.”
“We are strategizing with community stakeholders and other elected officials to determine next steps as we continue to push back on the Mayor’s plan,” Mr. Marte continued. “It is important for the public to know: almost every step of the way, the City has been telling people that the jail is a done deal. They say this so people feel burnt out, resigned, and will stop fighting. But if we give up, nobody else will take up the fight. Against all odds, we have to fight this until the bitter end because that is what the people of Chinatown, Tribeca, and New York City deserve.”
State Assembly member Grace Lee said that she and State Senator Brian Kavanagh have been in touch with the Adams administration, “and are currently working to schedule an additional meeting between the City, elected officials and community stakeholders. We remain firmly committed to making sure the community’s voice is heard and local input is considered as this project moves forward.”
These developments follow a previous round of furious indignation, when officials from the City’s Department of Design and Construction appeared before the Quality of Life Committee of Community Board 1 (CB1) on April 19, and abruptly announced that they were proceeding with demolition at the MDC site.
“There was a ground swell of surprise, dismay and outrage at the lack of transparency and communication… and great concern that the City had again failed to provide any documentation to prove their assertion that the adaptive reuse of the two existing MDC towers was not feasible,” a CB1 resolution enacted a few days later noted.
The Adams administration responded to the chorus of criticism sparked by the April 19 announcement with an assurance that MDC demolition would be paused, pending further discussion with elected officials and community leaders—an interregnum that appears to have been disavowed by Mr. Kwan’s Thursday email message.