Chin Staffer Takes Heat from CB1 Committee on Boss's Jail Vote

Community Board 1 member Laura Starr, left, and Gigi Li, Councilwoman Margaret Chin's chief of staff. Starr told Li that the process for building the jail is a "travesty." Photos: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Nov. 20, 2019

Less than three weeks after Councilwoman Margaret Chin cast a crucial vote in favor of the de Blasio administration’s borough-based jail plan—including a widely opposed tower that will replace the two Manhattan Detention Complex buildings at 142 and 143 White Street—her top aide came before a Community Board 1 committee and took the heat.

Gigi Li, Chin’s chief of staff, appeared before CB1’s Land Use, Zoning and Economic Development Committee earlier this month to face a grilling over her boss’s support of the proposal, aimed at closing Rikers Island, that was unanimously opposed by the board.

Chin joined with the three other Council members, representing the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens districts also impacted by new jails, and who supported the plan despite heavy local opposition.

The borough-based jail plan calls for a “design-build” process in which a single architecture and construction team, yet to be selected, works together to come up with a future plan for the buildings. It is also a process that board members worry will leave the community out of the loop. 

“Who are the design people who are going to make sure this looks good?” said committee member Laura Starr, a landscape architect. “It’s a travesty that this is happening this way. This is a major building in Lower Manhattan. It’s a tourist and residential and civic center of our city and we won’t have control of how this thing looks.”

“The City Council did not have a say in whether design-build would be used,” Li replied.

“You could have protested it,” Starr shot back. “You know what? Margaret is our representative. Chinatown did not want this building and she supported it. And so, this is a problem. I feel not represented.”

Next month, Li said, a new Jails, Justice and Communities Working Group will be formed, and consulted as part of the planning process for the jail. The group will be similar to the invitation-only Neighborhood Advisory Council, which met during the land use review leading up to the City Council vote. Like the NAC meetings, the gatherings will be closed to the public and the press.

Li said the community board would be kept informed, on a “parallel track” with the task force. 

“We made it very clear that we wanted the meetings to be public,” committee member Alice Blank said.

Chin, who is criticized by some for not addressing the community board directly, has said her highest priority is replacing Rikers Island with more humane facilities. But she has touted administration promises to the community, such as upgrades to Columbus Park, a commitment of $30 million to acquire space for a performing arts venue for the Museum of the Chinese in America, and demolition and construction safeguards for tenants in Chung Pak, the senior residence next door to the Manhattan Detention Complex. In addition, she has emphasized, the administration agreed to reduce the jail’s height from 495 feet to 295 feet. (Its square footage will be nearly 700,000 square feet, according to Chin’s office.)

But the committee complained that many of the points of concern in the board’s six-page resolution opposing the jail had been ignored.

“There is so much in these points of agreement [with the city] that don’t address a lot of what we had in our resolution,” said the committee’s chairman, Patrick Kennell. Li said her office would provide a point-by-point response to the detailed resolution.

According to Chin’s office, Chin and De Blasio administration representatives are expected to be at CB1’s Land Use, Zoning and Economic Development Committee meeting next month for a continued exchange on planning for the jail.