Put the Brakes on Jail Tower Proposal, Community Board Committee Tells City

Community Board 1's Land Use, Zoning and Economic Development Committee discusses the city's jail plan before voting to oppose it. Some in the audience expressed their opinions with signs. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

May. 16, 2019

UPDATE: On Tuesday, May 28, the full community board affirmed the committee's resolution.

A Community Board 1 committee has a message to the city over its plan to build a massive, 450-foot-high jail on the border of Tribeca and Chinatown.

Press pause.

A month after a contentious public hearing on the plan before CB1’s Land Use, Zoning and Economic Development Committee, the committee voted on May 13 to oppose the proposal unless the building, as yet undesigned, is dramatically scaled down, among other conditions. It blasted city officials as “woefully unprepared,” as one member put it, to provide critical information about its plan to demolish the sizable current jail buildings at 124 and 125 White Street and replace them with a towering facility that would occupy both sites and span White Street.

The project, part of the city’s plan to close Rikers Island and build a new jail in each of the boroughs except Staten Island, is undergoing review of a proposed zoning amendment that would allow for a building that is 30 percent—or 466,000 square feet—bigger than current zoning permits. The community board is the first stop on a six-month Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, that ends with a vote by the City Council.

In recent months the number of projected detainees for Manhattan has dropped from 1,500 to 1,417 to 1,150 and is likely to be reduced further as a result of state legislated criminal justice reforms. Officials say they are working to bring down the size of the building, but what is up for approval remains unchanged. Committee members complained the huge project is being hurried through the process without regard to diminished needs for beds and services.

“I think we should make a statement that, clearly, the application is in so much flux that it should be withdrawn so the public review process can be handled as it’s supposed to be, based on real accurate information,” said committee member Paul Goldstein.  

“I find it really hard to vote on something that is a moving target, that is so big and that is severing the neighborhood like this,” said committee member Laura Starr. “It’s ironic because the program is all about creating a more just way of handling New York citizens, and yet this building is like a Stalinist symbol of a punitive system.”

“I know you’re working hard to reduce the bulk,” Starr added, speaking to administration representatives at the meeting. “So I think the best thing would be for you to press the hold button, and then come back to us with something that works urbanistically.”

But the officials were unmoved.

“We could wait and we could wait and see what happens and someone could come up with different plans. Maybe some would be better and some would be worse but the time is now,” insisted Brenda Cooke, chief of staff for the city’s Department of Correction, noting that revising the plan would set the process back eight to 10 months. The administration has worked tremendously hard to get to a place where it has proposed this plan for a smaller, safer, fairer criminal justice system.”

The environmental impacts of the project will only decrease as the project gets smaller, said Julia Kerson of the mayors office, “which is why we proposed the worst case scenario and the maximum building size. As long as the impacts don’t grow, we can do it within this process and not start over.”

Still, committee members remained perplexed that they were being asked to decide on an enormous project that has yet to be finalized. Their unanimous vote against the current proposal reflected it.

“This effort is poorly planned and you’re dealing with the mayor’s timetable,” said committee member Michael Kramer, “rather than with a project that’s going to affect this community for 100 years.”

The full board is scheduled to vote on the committee’s resolution on May 28. The next public hearing, before Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, is expected in early June, with a date yet to be announced.