Mayor Takes on Critics of Towering Plan to Replace White St. Jails

Under the city's plan, 124 and 125 White Street, the south and north towers of the Manhattan Detention Center, shown here, would be demolished and replaced by a jail as tall as 50 stories. "We need to get the scale [of the building] as small as it can be and still achieve the goals and the equity of the plan," de Blasio said. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib   

Dec. 23, 2018

Although the city has changed its proposed site for a towering jail on the edge of Chinatown, many of its opponents are unappeased. Last week, the mayor himself came to the neighborhood to face those critics, head on.

The closed-door, roundtable meeting with two dozen community leaders and elected officials on Dec. 18 follows a decision by the administration to scrap its heatedly opposed plan for a 40-story facility at 80 Centre Street. Instead, it wants to tear down the two nearby structures that house the current Manhattan Detention Center, at 124 and 125 White St., and build a jail that is triple its size— as tall as 520 feet, or around 50 stories. The site change has hardly satisfied critics, who continue to question the potential impact on the neighborhood, including years of construction.

“A 50-story structure in the heart of an already densely populated, unique, diverse and historic neighborhood, with a failing transit, water and sewage system is not the answer,” Nancy Kong, a leader of Neighbors United Below Canal, a group critical of the plan, said in a statement that she read to the mayor.

Kong, who is president of the 240-unit Chatham Towers, is among residents who complain that the site selection process ignored community input, and call on the administration to consider additional sites.

Not surprisingly, the mayor did not back down. (Accounts of the closed meeting here are based on a recording made public by Jan Lee, one of the participants.)

“I understand that this is going to come with real challenges,” said de Blasio, who sat at the head of a long table at Chinatown’s American Legion Post 628, beside Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who facilitated the meeting. “I’m not going to promise you a rose garden and say they’re just going to have a helicopter bring in a new building and take out the old one.”

“But I am saying,” the mayor continued, “a whole lot of thought went into if there was any other viable alternative outside the immediate area—and I don’t believe there is. And I don’t believe delay in terms of getting off Rikers Island and changing how we address mass incarceration is in anyone’s interest.”

A “360” view from White Street of the Manhattan Detention Center at 124 and 125 White St., with Baxter Street bordering the site on the east. (Click and drag your cursor to see the full 360-degree view.) Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Manhattan Detention Center - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA


The new jail would be part of a plan to close Rikers Island and replace it with a detention facility in each of the boroughs except Staten Island. The plan for the borough-based jail system, estimated at nearly $11 billion, grows out of recommendations by the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform that recommends replacing Rikers Island with safer and more humane jails. It also called for a fifth facility on Staten Island—rejected by the administration—that critics say would have allowed for smaller jails in the other boroughs. The majority of the detainees in the city's jails have yet to be tried.

State Sen. Brian Kavanagh termed the decision to build only four jails “capricious.”

“It does seem the city is reluctant to consider the difficulty of siting additional facilities,” Kavanagh said, noting that 20 percent of the detainees are serving sentences and do not need to be near the courts. “But that seems to be the only route that gets us to a solution where this is a building that is reasonably in the scale that anybody in this community is going to accept.”

De Blasio said cost and logistics made Staten Island an impractical option for a new jail. In addition, he claimed a jail there would only minimally reduce the size of the other facilities. “If we can create something that is viable with the fewest building sites, that is inherently good government,” he said, while also asserting that there would be an effort to lower the building’s eventual height.

“We need to get the scale [of the new building] to be as small as it can be that still achieves the goals and the equity of the plan,” de Blasio continued. “And we need to address the community needs in a very aggressive fashion.”

The needs of seniors, especially, have yet to be addressed, said Jan Lee, a Chinatown activist with Neighbors United Below Canal. In particular, he cited those living in Chung Pak, an 80-unit low and moderate income senior residence that abuts the 125 White Street jail, where construction is expected to end in 2027. He complained that the city is making provisions for the detainees to be transferred to Rikers Island during those years, but that no thought has been given to the nearby seniors. “There is no mention of any money or facility that is going to take care of our seniors,” he said.

“I don’t want to see seniors put in a horrible situation. We have to make them whole,” de Blasio replied. ”And if you say and the community says that our vision of making them whole is that if we have to move them somewhere else in the meantime so they have an absolutely stable environment, and then bring them back with guarantee that they get to come back, we can discuss that and many other options,”

Whatever pain comes with the new facility, the administration promises to help relieve it with what de Blasio called a “substantial pool of resources” for an as-yet-determined community benefit, such as new senior affordable housing or a cultural institution. “If anyone says the glass is half empty I understand it,” he said. “I am saying there is also the interpretation of the glass being half full of…all the things we want to get done for the community.”

Under the 80 Centre Street proposal, the 125 White Street site would have been converted into affordable housing or some other benefit to the community. Now it is unclear where a new project would be built. But de Blasio insisted that through the upcoming review process known as the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure or  ULURP, there will be “lots of dialogue, lots of engagement” over the neighborhood’s needs, as well as potential impacts to the neighborhood and how they can be diminished.

“Any and all issues should be put on the table, both concerns about things that have to be addressed but also needs of the community that have to be met in the process,” he said.

That public process will continue through much of 2019. First, a draft environmental impact statement, an analysis of potential neighborhood impacts from the proposed jail project, will be issued on March 25. In April begins the six-month-long land use review, with public hearings before the community board, borough president, City Planning Commission, and City Council. Responses to those comments will be included in the final environmental impact statement. Also weighing in on the proposal will be a Neighborhood Advisory Council, to include representatives from businesses, tenant associations, social service and criminal justice organizations, among others.

“There are going to be so many meetings of engagement,” Councilwoman Margaret Chin said in an interview after the mayor’s roundtable. “When people say it’s going to be 50 stories, it’s not a done deal. So this is the time for people to work together.”

“We have to explore every opportunity to make sure as much as we can to mitigate this negative impact,” added Chin, whose approval of the plan is crucial to its passage in the Council. “And making sure we protect our seniors.”

But Anthony Notaro, chair of Community Board 1, said after the meeting with the mayor that he was left with the feeling that the important decisions had already been made, unilaterally. “They’re being pushed down to us and we’re always in reactive mode,” he said. “I hate to be reactive. We need to be in front of it.”