CB1 Slams City's Plans for Two Jail Buildings That Await Demolition

The north tower of the Manhattan Detention Complex, left, completed in 1990, and the south tower, which reopened in 1983 following a $42 million renovation. Both are slated for demolition, beginning in early spring. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Jan. 02, 2022

By the spring, city contractors are slated to begin demolishing the two jail buildings of the Manhattan Detention Complex at 124 and 125 White Street, a job scheduled to take a year-and-a-half. Replacing them is the controversial and as yet undesigned 295-foot jail tower that was part of the de Blasio administration’s borough-based jail plan for closing Rikers Island in 2027. Before that work begins, officials in January will seek approval from the city’s Public Design Commission for two proposals, presented late last month to Community Board 1: Disposal of the public art created for those buildings; and the addition of a structure on Centre Street where detainees will be brought by bus from Rikers Island to the Criminal Court, next door to 124 White Street. 

Treatment of the Art Called ‘Betrayal of the Public Trust’

An uncertain future for some, an unceremonial demise for others. That’s what awaits the site specific public works by three prominent artists that are part of the doomed Manhattan Detention Complex. 

City officials told CB1 that certain installations by Kit Yin-Snyder and Richard Haas, designed as part of the 175-foot north tower, which opened in 1990, will be warehoused and restored before demolition begins. When and where they will be seen again is unknown, according to Kendal Henry of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, who presented the plan. In addition, a seven-panel painted mural by Haas on the second-floor facade of the building, depicting immigration on the Lower East Side, can’t be detached from the wall so it will not be saved, Henry said.

The works were commissioned as part of the city’s Percent for Art Program, which stipulates that one percent of the construction budget for a new or restored city building be set aside for art as part of the project. 

The two artists, sitting in on the remote meeting, decried the fate of their works. 

“Both of us are very upset and sad about the loss,” Haas said. “We worked very hard on that project back in the day as it was a tremendous addition to the neighborhood, with a lot of thought about the community at that time.”

Kim Snyder spoke for her mother, who was with her. “She has been greatly saddened by the fact that the public artwork that she created for the White Street site is soon to be dismantled and there is a possibility that it will not be incorporated as part of the newly designed building,” she said, noting that her mother spent years designing, building and installing the work. 

Henry said the citys “first hope” is to integrate the work in the new facility. “Our backups are to think about where else, by investigating current locations in the community and elsewhere that the works could survive.

“This is the legacy of Richard and Kit and we don’t want to see these stored perpetually in some sort of warehouse somewhere,” Henry added. “We want to see it open to the public as it was intended.” 

Two 1940 cast bronze relief panels over entrances to the south jail tower (aka The Tombs) by the late Rene Paul Chambellan, “Arms of the City of New York” and “Enlightenment,” will also be removed and stored, Henry said.

Some of the public art at the complex has fallen into disrepair, most notably Kit-Snyder’s pavement design on the walkway between the two buildings, which became all but unrecognizable after the Department of Correction turned part of the public space into a staff parking lot. 

“Who among us isn’t a little bit sickened from the whole presentation of what once was, and how it’s been really debased,” said CB1 co-chair Alice Blank. 

Amy Chin, president of the cultural organization ThinkChinatown and a longtime Chinatown cultural leader, said she was “appalled” by the city’s neglect of the art “that the city spent enormous amounts of money on.” 

“This betrayal of the public trust is really outrageous and represents an absolute disregard for the art and the public in public art,” Chin said. “Given this poor track record we cannot trust the city to do right by the community. If they can’t get this right, how can they get the bigger things right?”

Board members complained that the city representatives were coming to the board at the last minute, denying the public a full opportunity to weigh in on its plans. 

Tammy Meltzer, the CB1 chair, said the city turned down the board’s request for a presentation in January to its Land Use, Zoning and Economic Development Committee first, which would be standard practice before the proposal goes to the Public Design Commission. 

“Why is it forced to be rushed in a full board meeting at the end of December?” she asked, instead of doing a robust outreach and community engagement?”

At some future date, Henry responded, “we will have a more engaging kind of process as to what happens to the artwork.” 

CB1 Say No to ‘Temporary’ Arrival Building for Detainees

The board was even less friendly to the city’s proposed addition to the front of the Criminal Courthouse at 100 Centre Street, called a sally port, where detainees would be brought by bus for court appearances during the years of demolition and construction. 

The roughly 2,300-square-foot building would be constructed on what now is the sidewalk in front of the Criminal Courthouse at 100 Centre St. With buses maneuvering in limited space to back into the garage, board members called the plan dangerous. “To me as a pedestrian [trying] to get around this area, that’s the same thing as essentially closing off that entire sidewalk, period,” said board member Rosa Chang.

Chang called the design “the most depressing public space intervention that I have seen in a really long time.” She added, “ I would never want to cross there even if I wasn’t going to get run over by a detention bus.” 

Jeff Margolies of the city’s Department of Design and Construction, which is overseeing the project, almost sounded apologetic. “We’re trying to work with what we have available to us,” he said of the impact on pedestrians. “I understand the concern.”

Christopher Marte, who on Jan. 1 became City Councilman for the district, complained that the city’s presentation lacked important information, such as a traffic impact study, the effect of vehicles on a sinking sidewalk, safety measures for the neighborhoods many seniors, and other concerns. 

“There’s just a lot of questions and I highly recommend that you come back to this community,” he said.

In drafting its resolution, CB1 called on the Public Design Commission to delay its Jan. 18 hearing on the plan until it could get a fuller presentation.

“Otherwise,” said Patrick Kennel, chair of the board’s Land Use, Zoning and Economic Development Committee, “PDC should reject it out of hand.”