Adams Said He's Against Chinatown Jail; Plan's Foes Are Holding Him to It

Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee for mayor, and the two jail buildings that are slated to be demolished. A 295-foot jail tower is planned to span the two sites. Photos and composite photo by Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib 

Oct. 01, 2021

Standing with opponents of the planned 295-foot Chinatown jail tower, mayoral candidate Eric Adams last April proclaimed his solidarity with their cause. 

“I join you today in saying no new jail. No building up a jail in this location,” he told the group at a press conference next to the current two-building jail complex at 124 and 125 White Street, slated for demolition. “We can do a better job and I know it’s possible to solve the problems we are facing with incarceration without the destruction of communities.”

With only three months left in office, Mayor de Blasio is forging ahead with his estimated $8.7 billion borough-based jail plan for closing Rikers Island. Since April, city officials said, all detainees have been transferred out of the current facilities in Chinatown, in advance of the buildings being torn down. Now, opponents of the 295-foot-high tower, who warn that 18 months of demolition and more than four additional years of construction will devastate the neighborhood, are looking to Democratic nominee Adams, the likely next mayor, to keep his commitment.

“We’ve reached out to his campaign to let him know that we are going to hold him accountable to his words at our press conference,” said Jan Lee, co-founder of Neighbors United Below Canal, a group formed to fight the project. “We’re waiting to hear back from them, but we don’t expect change from that.”

(Last month, de Blasio told reporters he heard “straight from the horses mouth” that Adams is “moving forward” with the plan though he has “concerns about some of the specifics of the community based jails. The Adams campaign did not respond to the Trib’s request for comment.)

A year ago, a suit brought by the group halted the project until last March, when the city won a reversal of the lower State Supreme Court ruling. Now, Lee said, they are waiting to learn if the state’s highest court will hear their case.

In the meantime, he and other opponents are denouncing de Blasio’s intent to “steamroll” the start of demolition during his waning days in office. In a heated encounter with city officials at a remote meeting last month, they pleaded for a pause in that work, with a start date yet to be announced. 

“The mayor who is coming in has stated his opposition to exactly what you’re doing right now,” said Jon Alpert, the co-founder and co-executive director of DCTV, which is housed in a landmarked firehouse a block from the site. “Why won’t you wait three months? Let’s sit back and analyze this. Because we don’t want it and you’re ramming it down our throats.”

Citing the widely known “significant problems” on Rikers Island, Dana Kaplan, deputy executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, said the administration is committed to moving quickly to close the troubled jails and open the four new ones, which are scheduled to be completed in 2027.

“We as an administration are laser focused on how to close Rikers Island in the fastest timeline possible,” she said. “We are going to do everything we can to move that plan forward.” 

“Obviously,” Kaplan added, “there’s an incoming administration and you all will continue to work with them and it will be on them to carry this plan forward. But as the de Blasio administration, our commitment is to close the jails on Rikers Island as fast as possible.”

“Everyone on this call and everyone in this community is concerned and is not blind to the issue of closing Rikers Island or the conditions of Rikers Island,” responded Jonathan Hollander, founder and artistic director of Battery Dance Company, based on Broadway near the jail site. “But it’s on you and on the de Blasio administration that you allowed the conditions to exist.”

“This is the ethical position that we’ve heard over and over again, as if this is a way to help the people who are now suffering on Rikers Island,” Hollander added. “It is completely a smokescreen. Move your laser and look at the people now, and look at the Chinatown community.

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