Opponents Sue to Halt Chinatown Jail, Claiming City's Review Failures

At a press conference, on Tuesday, held by Neighbors United Below Canal, leading opponents of a jail plan for 124 and 125 White Street announce their lawsuit. Jan Lee, at microphone in the center, and Christopher Marte, far right, are co-founders of  N.U.B.C. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib  

Feb. 18, 2020

No sooner had the City Council approved the de Blasio administration’s controversial borough-based jail proposal in October than opponents of the planned facility for Chinatown vowed to sue. Now they’ve made good on their pledge.

Lawyers for Neighbors United Below Canal (N.U.B.C.) filed a lawsuit on Feb. 14 claiming a slew of potentially damaging environmental and health impacts from demolition and construction, plus alleged violations of the city’s own environmental and land use review processes.

The legal challenge to the city’s decision, known as an Article 78, also includes claims that the city failed to survey the site for “archeological resources” that are significant to Native Americans. The American Indian Community House is a petitioner in the suit.

Recent lawsuits also have been filed in the Bronx and Queens to stop the jails planned in those boroughs. 

The city’s plan to close Rikers Island and replace it with four borough-based jails includes tearing down the two buildings of the Manhattan Detention Complex at 124 and 125 White Street, 18 and 19 stories respectively, and replacing them with a single, 295-foot-high tower that covers both lots and spans White Street.

There are no designs for the planned jails. The city recently issued a Request for Qualifications from contractors in a first step to choose the teams that will design and build a jail in each of the boroughs except Staten Island, which was exempted from the plan. 

But opponents hope to convince a State Supreme Court judge to short-circuit that process by annulling City Planning Commission and City Council approvals and forcing the entire land use and environmental reviews to start over from scratch. “The city clearly has not done its due diligence, has not taken a hard look at many of the things that weve included [in the suit],” said Jan Lee, a co-founder of N.U.B.C.

In response to the suit, de Blasio administration spokeswoman Avery Cohen told the Trib in a statement: “Our borough-based jails plan is the culmination of years of collaboration between the City, local elected officials, and the communities they represent. We will vigorously defend our work in court as we move forward with our commitment to close Rikers Island and create a justice system that is smaller, safer, and fairer.

Opponents claim the city failed to fully consider the environmental impacts of the new jail. In an affidavit to the court, Dr. Judith Zelikoff, professor of environmental medicine in the NYU School of Medicine, writes that the city’s Final Environmental Impact Statement doesn’t provide “an accurate picture” of the health impacts of long-term demolition and construction. Their effects, she wrote, could be “an exceptionally detrimental disturbance to residents’ health and well-being for years to come.”

Jon Alpert, co-founder and co-executive director of DCTV, the documentary production and education center housed in a landmark former firehouse on Lafayette Street, told a press conference on Tuesday that dewatering for the excavation of the new building will cause his 1895 structure to sink, something he said the city did not consider. “We’re 50 feet away, he said. “We can’t survive.

The suit also alleges the city acted improperly by combining all four borough-based jails into one Uniform Land Use Procedure (U.L.U.R.P.) application rather than treating them separately. In addition, it asserts that by leaving Staten Island out of the borough-based plan, the city violated its “fair share” rule that calls for siting facilities evenly around the city. (City officials have claimed that there is not enough crime in Staten Island to warrant a new jail.)

Christopher Marte, a co-founder of N.U.B.C. and state Democratic committeeman for the 65th Assembly District, pointed a finger at City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, Manhattan Borough President Gayle Brewer, and Council Speaker Corey Johnson for what he said was ignoring the will of the community. “We elected you to make sure we have a voice and you shut us out,” said Marte, “and the only avenue we have now is this lawsuit.