The city plans to renovate and expand the Manhattan Detention Complex, known informally as “The Tombs,” as part efforts to close the jail facilities on Rikers Island. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
By Michael Garofalo
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to build a new city jail in Lower Manhattan is a crucial piece of his initiative to shutter the scandal-plagued detention facilities at Rikers Island by 2027. But his administration’s efforts to build the new facility have been a source of frustration to many in the downtown community, even among supporters of the plan to close Rikers, who complain that the city’s process has left them sidelined.
The mayor held a private meeting with downtown elected officials and community leaders on Dec. 18 to discuss his administration’s latest proposal, which calls for a new Manhattan jail at 125 White St. The administration has publicly shared few details of its plan, which would replace the existing jail at the site — the Manhattan Detention Complex, commonly known as the Tombs — with a significantly larger facility.
The proposal to build at 125 White St. represents a shift from the city’s initial plan, released in August, to locate the new jail a few blocks south at 80 Centre Street. The change in sites, which was hastily announced and was not accompanied by updates to detailed official documentation prepared for the Centre Street location, has prompted procedural complaints from some downtown residents and elected officials, many of whom still harbor lingering concerns about construction noise, traffic disruptions, parking and safety.
“I think the basic problem with the process here is that the city made many of the big decisions before doing outreach to the communities that would be affected and before there was any formal opportunity for people to comment,” said State Senator Brian Kavanagh, who represents the neighborhood and attended the closed-door meeting.
Under de Blasio’s plan to close Rikers, the notoriously violent East River detention facility will be replaced with four new borough-based jails to house defendants awaiting trial and sentencing, one of which will be located in Manhattan. The three remaining facilities will be sited in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens.
The city’s plan follows many of the recommendations of a 2017 report on incarceration reform in New York City issued by an independent commission headed by former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. The commission recommended the closure of the Rikers Island jail facilities, which it called “inhumane and violent” and “an international symbol of despair and damage.”
In August, the administration issued a single draft scope of work document for all four of the new jails, the first step in the extensive city land use and environmental quality review process required to site the new facilities. The document contemplated a 1,510-bed jail at 80 Centre Street, currently a state office building that houses courtrooms and offices of the Manhattan District Attorney, City Clerk, Manhattan Marriage Bureau and other city agencies. The document dismissed the possibility of expanding existing city jails such as the Tombs, which currently has capacity of approximately 1,000. Existing facilities, the city’s scoping review found, “cannot be expanded to meet the needs of the contemporary facilities envisioned.”
In September, the administration held a public scoping meeting in Manhattan to solicit formal public input on the proposal for 80 Centre Street, one of several public forums following the announcement that Chinatown residents packed to voice their displeasure with the plan and protest the lack of public engagement prior to the announcement of the site.CHANGING COURSE
But weeks after the official public comment period on the city’s scoping process ended, the mayor’s office abruptly changed course, announcing in November that it planned instead to build the new jail at 125 White Street. The administration cited challenges associated with relocating the existing offices at 80 Centre St., rather than community opposition, as the reason for the shift.
The mayor made no reference to the site change in brief public remarks before the Dec. 18 roundtable meeting at American Legion Post 1291 on Canal Street, which was closed to the press, instead saying, “the locations where we have existing jails, since the Lippman Report, have always been the logical place to focus the discussion.”
“This is part of a vision of getting off Rikers, having four community-based jails of similar size,” de Blasio said. “We know they must be safe for the surrounding communities and we have a track record that shows us that can be done very well.”
Despite the change in site, the de Blasio administration does not intend to update the draft scope of work for the new jails — the 56-page document required under the city’s environmental review process that outlines the extent of the project — nor will it hold additional scoping meetings to field comments from the public.
“While there will not be a new scoping meeting or draft scope of work given the close proximity of the two locations, there will be significant time for public comment that will be addressed throughout the [Uniform Land Use Review Process],” mayoral spokesperson Raul Contreras wrote in an emailed statement. Contreras did not respond to an inquiry about the potential height of the new facility, which, according to individuals briefed on the plans, could be as tall as 50 stories.
“We are effectively now in a public engagement process about a 500-foot-tall proposed jail that is not even described in any public documents in any formal way,” Kavanagh said.
Kavanagh and a number of other elected officials, including Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Council Member Margaret Chin, whose district includes the neighborhood, have called on the administration to reopen the scoping process and submit separate ULURP applications for each of the four jails sites rather than pursuing the projects through a single land use review.
“The logical thing to do would be to disseminate an amended version of [the draft scope of work] that specifies what they’re planning to do on White Street with the same level of detail that the previous document did for the Centre Street site,” Kavanagh said.
Yuh-Line Niou, who represents the neighborhood in the State Assembly, called the mayor’s private briefing “disappointing.”
“Closed processes and closed meetings are not actions of good government,” Niou wrote on Twitter, adding, “This meeting does not deserve the check mark of ‘public engagement’.”
Anthony Notaro, who serves as chair of Community Board 1 and attended the meeting, agreed that the city should revisit the scoping process in light of the site change. “It was positive that they mayor and his team took the time to meet with the community,” Notaro said. “The thing that still concerns me is that we need to have a more inclusive and substantive dialog about the decision and the process.”
Council Speaker Corey Johnson said at a Dec. 19 press conference he was “glad to see that they mayor is talking to the community about this.”
“Closing Rikers remains a priority for me,” Johnson said, adding that the Council, borough president, and Community Board 1 will have an opportunity to address local concerns with the project as it proceeds through ULURP.
“This is not done yet,” Johnson said. “I support a site being in Manhattan, but the conversation around what happens on that site—the height and density and what happens on the street and the neighborhood and what other things can be done for parks and transportation and other facilities in the community — I think is an important conversation to have.”
Nancy Kong, the co-founder of Neighbors United Below Canal, a local group that participated in the meeting, wrote in an emailed statement, “We hope that the Mayor’s visit on Tuesday does not stand in place of a scoping hearing, or any part of the process which must include meaningful community engagement and with a larger representation of the community than this meeting. We want to work with the City to develop a solution that balances the need for criminal justice reform, a new physical structure and for minimizing the impact to a diverse, unique and historic community.”