Furor in Chinatown over jail plan

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Residents protest city proposal for new Manhattan jail to replace Rikers


  • Dozens of Chinatown residents turned out to a Sept. 12 meeting at P.S. 124 to voice their opposition to the city’s plan to build a 1,510-bed jail at 80 Centre Street. Photo: Michael Garofalo

  • A rendering of a proposed jail facility at 80 Centre Street in Lower Manhattan. Image: NYC Mayor’s Office

  • The administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed 80 Centre Street as the location of a new 1,510-bed detention center, part of the city’s plan to close the Rikers Island jail facilities. The corner is now the site of the Louis J. Lefkowitz State Office Building, which houses courtrooms and offices of the Manhattan District Attorney, City Clerk, Manhattan Marriage Bureau and other city agencies. Photo: Michael Garofalo

By Michael Garofalo

City officials presenting plans for a new 1,510-bed detention center in Lower Manhattan were repeatedly interrupted with chants of “no jail!” from angry Chinatown residents at a contentious Sept. 12 meeting at P.S. 124 in Chinatown.

The proposal to build a new jail facility at 80 Centre St. — a crucial piece in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to close the notoriously violent Rikers Island jail facilities within ten years — has prompted passionate opposition from many in the Chinatown community.

The city’s plan would transform the corner of Centre and Worth Streets, currently the site of the Louis J. Lefkowitz State Office Building, which houses courtrooms and offices of the Manhattan District Attorney, City Clerk, Manhattan Marriage Bureau and other city agencies. The new jail would be one of four new borough-based jails to replace Rikers, with others located in Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn.

Proponents of the so-called community-based jails say that siting the facilities in each borough will lessen the isolation experienced by incarcerated individuals as they await trial and sentencing by allowing for easier contact with family members and other loved ones. The proposed site of the new jail at 80 Centre St. is adjacent to the New York County Criminal Court; early plans propose a pedestrian bridge across Hogan Street to connect the jail and the court.

Many at the meetinng said they support the closure of Rikers and the idea of community jails, but oppose one being built in Chinatown. Much of the public criticism centered on the fact that there was little transparency or opportunity for public input on the new jail’s location before preliminary plans for the 80 Centre St. site were released in mid-August.

“Closing Rikers is a laudable goal,” said Nicholas Stabile, who lives in a Park Row coop near the proposed jail site. “But the process employed by the Mayor’s Office to achieve this goal focuses on only half the equation — the people inside the jail. It ignores the other half of the equation — the people in the surrounding community.” Rather than consulting locals before releasing the plan, Stabile said, the administration “came in with a fully baked plan that burdens the community and provides almost no benefits.”

In comments at the beginning of the meeting, neither Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer nor local Council Member Margaret Chin took a position on the proposal.

Brewer criticized the administration’s handling of the planning process thus far, particularly the decision to release preliminary plans in August, when most community boards do not hold meetings. “I may disagree with you on whether or not there should be a jail, but I will never disagree that there should be a community process that has lots of time in order to have your input,” she said.

Chin emphasized that the process of siting a new jail is still in its early stages and the result is far from certain. “I am not taking a position on this project because it’s only the beginning,” Chin said, explaining that she would listen to and evaluate the city’s presentation before passing judgment. Her statements drew jeers from many in the crowd who already oppose the jail plan.

In an emailed statement following the meeting, Chin said, “The community’s concerns must be heard, and that’s exactly what happened at the Town Hall last night.”

“I look forward to fostering a productive dialogue between the Administration and the residents, small businesses and property owners that stand to be most impacted by any change at the current [Manhattan Detention Complex] site,” she continued, referring to the existing city jail at 125 White Street, commonly known as The Tombs.

During the public comment period, speakers questioned how the jail would impact property values, the availability of parking in the neighborhood, and traffic on Worth Street, a key east-west thoroughfare.

“You look at Worth Street now, it’s a disaster already,” said Chinatown resident Victor Huey. “And you want to put a 40-story tower on Worth Street? Are you kidding me?”

Several locals also brought up safety concerns and said city resources would be better spent on creating affordable housing.

“Our community feels threatened by the idea of being neighbors with criminals,” Chinatown business owner Sio Wai Sang said in written testimony.

Also at issue is the height of the new building, which could rise as tall as 432 feet and cast shadows on neighboring Columbus Park, an important hub of the Chinatown community. City officials said the jail would be designed to minimize shadows on the park.

Public comments on the project will be accepted at a scoping hearing on the project Sept. 27 at 6 p.m. at 1 Centre St.

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