Brewer Hears Impassioned Views Over Mega-Jail Proposed by the City

At the public hearing before Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, right, Jonathan Hollander calls the plan for a jail tower next to Chinatown "ridiculous." Christopher Marte holds a model of the neighborhood that illustrates the relative scale of the proposed building. Photos: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Jun. 25, 2019

This time it was the Manhattan Borough President’s turn.

Following Community Board 1’s advisory rejection last month of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to build a 450-foot-high jail on the border between Chinatown and Tribeca, Gale Brewer was up next to host a public hearing—and later weigh in—on the controversial plan. Her recommendations are due on July 3. 

The June 11 forum at Pace University was the second installment of the city-mandated six-month review of proposed changes in zoning and land use required to allow the project to go forward. (The proposed zoning amendment would permit a building that is 30 percent—or 466,000 square feet—bigger than current zoning permits.) At the end of the review process, the fate of the proposal lies with the City Council.

While the plan to close Rikers Island, among other criminal justice reforms, is widely seen as a laudable, even urgent, goal, the administration’s proposal to replace it with jail towers in each of the boroughs except Staten Island has been rejected by all four affected community boards, plus Manhattan’s Community Board 3, which represents most of Chinatown.

The four borough-based jail towers, which the city says could open in 2026, are meant to give detainees closer access to the courts, their families and attorneys, and provide expanded services and safer, more humane conditions. Brewer, who first formed a task force on closing Rikers Island two years ago, said she believes the plan will help to keep people out of the criminal justice system, but noted her concerns about what the jail will do to the surrounding neighborhood.

“Tearing down the building[s] on White Street and constructing a building that’s tall will have negative impacts on community residents,” she told the gathering, in a room largely divided between criminal justice activists on one side and proposal opponents on the other. “I’m very concerned about the small businesses and the people, but definitely the small businesses.” 

“We want to do it right in Manhattan,” Brewer added. “I don’t know about those other boroughs, but I’m damn sure we’re going to do it right in Manhattan.”

But just as Community Board 1 called the proposed building “grossly out of scale” and listed a whopping 16 conditions for their approval, opponents could find little to like about the massive demolition of the current jails at 124 and 125 White Street, and a tower three times bulkier and far taller that would replace them. 

“I fail to understand how building a mega-jail is the solution to the incarceration problem that Rikers represents,” said Bill Bialosky, an architect and 30-year resident of Walker Street. “They just don’t equate each other.” Bialosky called for a whole different approach that would include incorporating a nearby sanitation building in the plan and renovating the two existing jail buildings.

“These are really intelligent people” behind the proposal, said an incredulous Jonathan Hollander, the founder and artistic director of Battery Dance, who lives and works nearby on Broadway. “How could such a ridiculous plan emerge from all this intelligence?” Hollander said he is especially worried about the impact to Columbus Park, “the only place where senior citizens can do tai chi in the morning, where children can play games in the afternoon. The place is mobbed…and it’s in the shadow of this building.”

“Why is this Soviet monument to incarceration the only solution to closing Rikers?” said another opponent of the plan.

As they have at previous hearings, activists came to give first-hand testimony to what they described as inhumane conditions on Rikers Island— reason enough to support the proposal.

“I cannot understand people in this room who demand the mayor scrap this plan and just try again,” said one speaker. “Every month, day, and year we delay, more people are going through the unique trauma that is Rikers Island.”

“If the plan does not move forward and the ULURP [Uniform Land Use Procedure] process fails and Rikers stays as is, people will continue to die and suffer and be tortured every day,” said a member of the Alliance of Families for Justice. 

For activists who support the aims of No New Jails, a group that calls for closing Rikers Island without replacing it, the estimated $11 billion cost of the city’s plan should instead go toward mental health, housing, education and other rehabilitation programs. Maureen Silverman, a member of the group, called the plan a “legitimizing and normalizing of the status quo.” The group’s opposition, she said, “is not about not in my backyard, and it’s not about traffic, it’s not about just Chinatown. It’s about nobody’s backyard. We need to think about a transformative society.”

Brewer listened attentively to the speakers and took notes, but would say little following the meeting when asked for her reaction to what she had heard. She called the issue “complicated.” 

“We need to push the city,” she said. “So we’ll see what happens.”

In a statement, a spokesman for the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice said: “While we remain focused on the goal to close the jails on Rikers Island and of reforming the criminal justice system, we are also working to address the concerns of the Chinatown community regarding impacts on neighbors and surrounding businesses during construction.”

The proposal will be reviewed next by the City Planning Commission.