Anger and Opportunity: Announced Jail Move Sparks Mixed Emotions

Conceptual rendering by the city shows retail and public  spaces on the ground floor of a jail at 80 Centre Street, now a city-owned building that straddles Chinatown and the Civic Center.  

Aug. 17, 2018

The city is moving forward with a plan to turn a sprawling city-owned building at Worth and Centre Streets into a jail. The announcement on Wednesday, Aug. 15, came just two weeks after officials suprised community leaders with that “option” in a closed-door meeting. It was the first indication that the city might be abandoning its year-old proposal to expand the nearby Manhattan Detention Center at 125 White St. as part of a plan to close Rikers Island.

The city publicly revealed its intentions to convert 80 Centre Street/125 Worth Street, which now houses the marriage bureau among other city offices, into a facility that can accommodate up to 1,510 inmates. It is unknown how many floors will be added onto the nine-story building, but it could rise to 432 feet, or about 40 stories. What is known is that the plan calls for expanding the 640,000-foot building to 1.56 million square feet, with construction lasting more than two years.

The 80 Centre Street site, which straddles Chinatown and the Civic Center, will be one of four new jails in the city, one in each borough except Staten Island. Once Rikers Island closes, these jails will house a total of some 5,000 detainees among smaller and more humane detention centers.

“Now we can move full steam ahead on the engagement and planning for our new facilities so we can close Rikers as fast as possible,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.

Some community leaders say the city is moving far too fast. A lengthy series of public reviews begins on Sept. 27 with a meeting on the draft scope of work for an environmental impact study.

“A development of this size to be sprung on the community, clearly at the eleventh hour, and then expecting us to come back within 45 days during the summer with our response to that, is really outrageous,” said Anthony Notaro, chair of Community Board 1, which along with Community Board 3, representing Chinatown, will be reviewing the plan.

But the city is offering a sweetener in the deal, suggesting that once decommissioned, the detention center’s north tower, as well as portions of 80 Centre Street, could be converted for public use.

“On the other side there may be opportunities for the community here,” Notaro acknowledged. “The key to this will be having enough time and getting enough input to be able to formulate what makes sense for the community. Right now we need more time.”

In a phone interview, Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who represents Lower Manhattan and is crucial to the City Council’s approval of a final plan for 80 Centre Street, was upbeat both about the project contributing to needed jail reform and about the prospects of engaging the community in future uses of the decommissioned detention center.

Chin recalled Chinatown’s fight in the early 1980s, when the city took possession of a portion of Baxter Street through eminent domain in order to expand the Manhattan Detention Center, also known as The Tombs. That struggle led to the city returning land for needed community faciities. “The only reason we were able to get one-third of the property back to get a senior center and senior housing was because the community was together and we organized.”

“What does the community want at these sites? There are so many possibilities,” Chin said. “I want people to start thinking about those possibilities and I want to hear from them so we can build a strong coalition to push for them.”

“Far too often Chinatown, like no other, has singlely shouldered the blunt impacts of many unilateral decisions,” said Wellington Chen, executvive director of the Chinatown Partnership, a neighborhood improvement organization. At the end of the day we have to have a united front. Otherwise they’re going to say, I don’t know what you want, and we’ll just build whatever we want—again.”

But at an emotional meeting in Chinatown on Wednesday, Aug.15, some local leaders and residents were in no mood to talk of such discussions with the city. Instead, they angrily denounced the de Blasio administrations decision and were calling for a fight.

“Today we’re here to show the mayor we will not stand on the sidelines while he continues to make unilateral decisions,” said state Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, who organized the meeting. “The mayor’s constant disregard of our asks to discuss the plan and its arbitrarily tight deadline while community boards are out for the summer make it nearly impossible to properly and adequately assess the proposal for the 40-story detention center.”

Seated next to Niou was Eric Ng, president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, an important consortium of Chinese-American organizations. He and others at the meeting said they opposed siting the jail at 80 Centre Street or expanding the current facility. “We are fully against the project,” said Ng, who is known as the Mayor of Chinatown.

“Either one, against it,” he later said of the two original options.

Don Lee, a Chinatown community activist, agreed. “We do not take either one. There are far better locations in the city for that in Manhattan than in Chinatown.”

Niou said she complained to the mayor’s office about the city’s sudden announcement about the 80 Centre Street site. “They said this is now your opportunity to ask for things you want for your community. I said, this is ridiculous. The only thing we want is more transparency to be given to us.”

In response to complaints by Niou and others that the city chose the site without community consultation, Patrick Gallahue, a spokesman for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, told the Trib in a statement that meetings had been held with “community groups and local elected officials, and conducted focus groups with facility staff, service providers, defenders, educators, formally detained people and families of justice-involved people, among others.”

Gallahue did not specify what community groups or elected officials the city had consulted, but added, “Engagement with the community will accelerate and build in the weeks and months ahead and there will be myriad opportunities for neighborhood leaders and residents to provide feedback on design, program, neighborhood integration as well as a range of quality of life concerns within the neighborhoods where these sites will be located.”

Additional meetings, he said, will be held on “measures to integrate and invest in the adjacent neighborhood.”

The city’s first public meeting on the plan is scheduled for Sept. 27, at 6 p.m., at the Manhattan Borough President’s office, 1 Centre St., 19th floor.

CB1 is expected to form a working group next month, possibly with Community Board 3, to study the plan, CB1 Chair Notaro said.