City Officials Get Earful from Residents on Proposed New Jail at 80 Centre St.

Dana Kaplan, from the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, faces signs of protest as she explains the rationale for a borough-based jail system, and the siting of the Manhattan jail at 80 Centre St. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Sep. 10, 2018

Residents living near the site of a proposed new jail at 80 Centre St. slammed the plan at the first public meeting on the project, held last Thursday with city officials.

Representatives from the mayor’s office attended the meeting, sponsored by Community Boards 1 and 3, to explain the project and answer questions about what is proposed to be part of the de Blasio administration’s initiative to close Rikers Island and open more modern and humane, borough-based detention facilities. But many who crowded into the large hall of the Municipal Building came ready to unleash a volley of opposition.

“When you talk about building a beautiful facility, you’re not talking about understanding the impact to our lives,” said Nancy Kong, president of the co-op board of nearby Chatham Tower, the 240-unit complex at 170 Park Row.

“The very issues that you speak on behalf of prisoners, I’m speaking on behalf of the children, the seniors, the residents and businesses of Chinatown,” said Don Lee, a Chinatown activist. “They matter, too.”

The plan calls for converting 80 Centre Street/125 Worth Street, which now houses city offices, into a facility that can accommodate up to 1,510 inmates. The sprawling 640,000-square-foot building, which straddles Chinatown and the Civic Center, would be expanded to 1.56 million square feet and could rise as high as 432 feet. Once completed, the north tower of the Manhattan Detention Center at 125 White St. would be decommissioned and available for a yet-to-be-determined community use. In addition, 20,000 square feet of space on the first and second floors of the east side of the building, facing Columbus Park, would be available for community or retail use.

“We are very mindful of how we can best integrate these facilities into the neighborhood,” Dana Kaplan of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, Department of Correction, told the crowd, some of them holding protest signs.

Kaplan said the borough-based jail system plan would reduce recidivism, provide easier access for families and attorneys, and “deliver a jail system that is more fair, more safe and more efficient.”

“Our development of a better public safety system and a better criminal justice system has great benefits to people who are in detention,” Kaplan said, “and it has benefits to all New Yorkers in terms of better public safety outcomes.”

But opponents spoke of fears of crime, traffic congestion, and poor air quality from construction. And they said they are skeptical that future city leaders would bring the project to completion, a goal that is predicated on significant further reductions in the jail population.

“We are not willing to take this leap of blind faith that the prison population scheme will survive into the next administration,” said Jan Lee of the Chinatown Core Block Association, “…and that the new jails will finish on time and on budget.”

Kaplan said the administration is confident that its goal of reducing the number of detainees to 5,000 from what now is about 8,300 can be met. The cost, originally estimated at $10.6 billion, will be determined at the end of the year when the master plan is completed. “Obviously it will be a significant capital investment of city funds and financing,” she said.

Several residents called for putting the new jails and courts on Rikers Island. “We can have the cops who drive the prisoners over here to the city, drive the judges to the new courts and the new prisons,” said one opponent. “The Chinatown area is currently overwhelmed with jails.”

“This is something that we looked at,” Kaplan said. “It is not just about the facility but the fact that the isolation of Rikers Island, the challenge of accessing it and proximity to the court is very important for a better access to justice. It is about having a borough-based jail system that is better for the public safety system.”

Only last month the city announced it was considering 80 Centre Street as an option for the jail, drawing complaints that the community had not been consulted. “I think a lot people in this room feel extreme anger and frustration that we were left completely out of it,” said MyPhuong Chung, chair of Community Board 3s Land Use Committee.

Following Chin and Brewer’s town hall meeting on Sept. 12, a hearing on the draft scope of an environmental review of the project will be held Sept. 27 at 6 p.m. at the Manhattan Borough President’s office, 1 Centre St., 19th floor. Other hearings will be held as the review process unfolds over the next year.

“This is the first of many conversations we’ll be having in the process,” said Marco Carrión, the city's commissioner of community affairs.We are going to be asking for opinions, concerns as we move forward through this process. We’ll be doing robust engagement in all the areas affected by the new detention center sites.”

For opponents of the 80 Centre Street site, that engagement is well on its way. According to Patricia Tsai of Chinatown’s Lin Sing Association, the organization has collected more than 1,000 signatures opposing the jail.

“More [signatures] will be forthcoming and we are prepared to fight for our preservation,” she said. “We will not be part of this experiment.”