Opponents Celebrate Victory as Judge Blocks Jail Tower Plan for Chinatown

Following the opponents' legal victory, Jan Lee, co-founder of Neighbors United Below Canal, speaks at a press conference near the Manhattan Detention Complex, the buildings behind the group and at left that the city intends to demolish and replace with a 295-foot jail tower. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Sep. 22, 2020

Opponents of the city’s plan to build a jail tower in Chinatown are celebrating their win following a judge’s decision on Monday to halt the controversial project.

The ruling, in support of a lawsuit filed by Neighbors United Below Canal and others, annuls the City Council’s approval of the jail, calling it “arbitrary and capricious, affected by error of law, and rendered in the absence of proper procedure.”

State Supreme Court Judge John J. Kelley determined that the city failed to undertake a proper environmental review of a new jail at 124-125 White Street, after abandoning its first chosen site at 80 Centre Street. The judge said the city should have issued a new scope of work for public review, and failed to take into account the possible health effects of the White Street project. (The building is next door to a senior residence.) Kelley also cited the city’s study of environmental impacts of a building that had yet to be designed, and its failure to consider alternative sites, or the impacts of not building the jail at all. 

“This is a momentous occasion, not just for Chinatown but for all of New York City that is fighting land use processes,” said Jan Lee, a co-founder of Neighbors United Below Canal. “What this decision has said is that the city, even the City of New York, cannot break the rules when it comes to land use issues.

The city said in a statement that it remains committed to closing Rikers Island and will appeal the decision. Lawsuits against jails in the Bronx and Queens are still pending.

Under the city’s $8.7 billion plan, the two buildings of the Manhattan Detention Complex at 124 and 125 White Street would be demolished and replaced with a single, 295-foot-high building that covers both lots and spans White Street. Community Board 1 had opposed the project, citing numerous lingering questions still unanswered by the city. Last October the City Council approved the plan, which calls for closing Rikers Island and replacing it with a new jail in each borough except Staten Island. 

The decision comes just a week after a Community Board 1 committee reacted with astonishment to a de Blasio administration representative who informed them that, despite the city’s budget crises, consultants holding the project’s $107.4 million program management contract, are forging ahead with preliminary work on the jails’ design and construction. 

Andrew Kunkes of the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit, told CB1’s Land Use, Zoning and Economic Development Committee that the city is “actively” developing guidelines that will be included in a request for proposals to potential builders.

C. Colby Hamilton, a spokesman for the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, said that the judge’s decision will not impact that effort. “We will continue to move forward with community engagement, as well as the procurement and planning process on all four sites where new facilities will be located, he wrote in an email.