On Eve of Vote on Jail Towers, City Council Announces Height Reductions

Left: On White Street, looking east from Broadway, a massing rendering of the 450-foot-high jail tower it had proposed for Chinatown. Right: Councilwoman Margaret Chin listens last month to city officials during the Council's hearing on the proposal. Photos: Draft Environmental Impact Statement/NYC Dept. of Correction; Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib (Chin)

Oct. 15, 2019

Just two days before the City Council’s vote on a controversial borough-based jail plan that included a mammoth 45-story structure in Chinatown, the Council announced on Tuesday that the city is reducing the proposed heights of the four towers. In Manhattan, that means a 295-foot-high, 29-story building, 155 feet lower than had been proposed.

Influential Council members who represent the four impacted districts said in statements that the height reductions have met their demands for smaller buildings. 

Councilwoman Margaret Chin, whose district includes the Manhattan Detention Complex at 124 and 125 White Street, to be demolished and replaced by the new jail, said the height reduction was more than she had expected.

“I was really, really happy that the city heard from the community, heard from me, and they were able to do that,” Chin said in a conference call with reporters. “From the beginning I told the city that [the height envelope] they projected is unacceptable.”

The height would roughly match that of the Criminal Court Building next door at 100 Centre Street, Chin said.

The drop in height was made possible, officials said, because of a new estimate for the city’s detainee population in 2026, when the new jails are supposed to be completed. The de Blasio administration announced a few days ago that it expects that number, now over 7,000 city-wide, to be reduced to 3,300 due to cash bail reforms, an expanded supervised release program, and other measures. Until recently, the administration estimated a need for 5,000 beds in the city’s jail system.

The city’s plan, which would enable the closure of Rikers Island, has been bitterly fought by opponents in all four affected communities and opposed by their community boards. Nancy Kong, a spokeswoman for Boroughs United, a group representing that opposition, said that lowering the buildings’ heights has not swayed them.

“Just reducing the height was not the only issue we had. But they keep making it as the only issue,” Kong said. “Our issue has always been the process. They had selected the site without community engagement.” Kong called the draft environmental statement on the impact of the plan “flawed and deficient.” 

“They have never addressed the environmental hazards,” she said.

The Manhattan Detention Complex would be demolished to make way for the new facility. The MDC includes the south tower or “Tombs,” which underwent a seven-year, $43 million renovation before re-opening in 1983, and the 19-story north tower, completed in 1990. Asked why the buildings could not undergo an interior overhaul and house the reduced population, Chin said, “The building is very, very old. We want to create a condition in there where services and activities are provided to the detainees while they’re there.” 

The city estimates that the four facilities will cost $8.7 billion, but the true cost is not known because the buildings have yet to be designed.

Chin has expressed concern over the impact of demolition and construction on the tenants of Chung Pak, a low-income senior residence next door to the jail. “We’re still waiting from the city to finalize how the seniors building will be protected,” she said, noting that the jail would be set back 40 feet from Chung Pak. She also said an agreement with the city is being worked out over the renovation of heavily used Columbus Park, especially its bathrooms and pavilion.

In the meantime, with the reduction of the jail’s height, Chin was clearly happy to declare victory. 

“We got what we fought for,” she said.