Community Board 3 Seeks Voice in Planning Chinatown Jail Expansion

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An upcoming meeting of Community Board 3’s public safety committee will provide the first opportunity for the general Lower East Side community to discuss the proposed expansion of the Manhattan Detention Complex, located at 125 White St.

Earlier this year, Mayor de Blasio and the City Council announced a long-range plan to close Rikers Island, replacing it with four community-based prisons. Under the proposal, the existing Manhattan jail facility in Chinatown would be expanded to accommodate at least 1,000 additional prisoners. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer has convened a community-based task force to help shape the plan.

When the community board panel meets Tuesday, April 10, it will consider a resolution urging the borough president to include CB3 on the task force. The detention facility is right on the line between CB1 and CB3. While the jail is located within Community Board 1, many of the businesses and residents most impacted are in CB3. Brewer was quizzed about the issue at a CB3 meeting last month, saying, “There’s a representative from Community Board 1, and we can certainly add Community Board 3.” The Lower East Side board is looking for her to follow through with that commitment. 

City Councilmember Margaret Chin speaks at City Hall on Feb. 14. Photo by John McCarten/NYC Council.

City Councilmember Margaret Chin speaks at City Hall on Feb. 14. Photo by John McCarten/NYC Council.

A year ago, the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform recommended closing Rikers, the infamous city prison with a long history of violence. On Feb. 14, the mayor stood shoulder-to-shoulder with City Council members representing neighborhoods in Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan where the expanded community jails would be located. Among them was District 1’s Margaret Chin.

In a statement, Chin said, “I look forward to working with the Mayor and (Council) Speaker (Corey Johnson) to ensure the communities of Lower Manhattan are heard as we move forward with the process of establishing a fairer and more humane criminal justice system. By working together, we will achieve the dream of closing Rikers for good. I thank Mayor de Blasio, Speaker Johnson, and former Speaker Mark-Viverito for providing the leadership to make our shared vision of a more just city a reality.”

The Manhattan Detention Complex is made up of two sections. The south tower, sometimes referred to as the “Tombs,” was reopened in 1983 after a court-ordered renovation. The north tower opened in 1990. The buildings are connected by a bridge. The facility currently has a capacity of 898 prisoners. 

The city is paying an architectural firm, Perkins Eastman, to study each site, and come up with a master plan for all locations. While no one has indicated how the Manhattan complex would likely be expanded, city officials have intimated the current north tower could be torn down and rebuilt, or floors could be added onto the existing structure. The daily population at Rikers averages 9,000. The mayor wants to get that down to 5,000, before closing the prison in 10 years. While there have been no official estimates regarding the number of additional inmates Manhattan would absorb, it’s assumed to be around 1500.

New York Times, Nov. 19, 1982.

New York Times, Nov. 19, 1982.

To understand how a lot of people in Chinatown are looking at today’s expansion proposal, it’s important to recall the contentious history of the jail site. In 1982, there were huge protests in Chinatown when Mayor Koch proposed building the north tower. According to news reports from the time 12,000 people poured onto the streets. It was during this time that Koch, speaking derisively of the Chinatown community, said, “You don’t vote, you don’t count.” Many present day local leaders, including Margaret Chin, took part in those protests, and became active in politics as a result.

The activism inspired by the 1980s jail proposal did not prevent the city from building the 9-story north tower. It did, however, lead to a concession for the local community. The city agreed to facilitate construction of an 88-unit senior housing complex with ground floor commercial space on a site next to the jail.

One member of Brewer’s task force is Jacky Wong, director of operations for the Chung Pak Local Development Corp., which runs the low-income housing tower.

In an interview, Wong acknowledged that no one’s crazy about the idea of having more prisoners housed in Chinatown. “But personally,” he said, “I think Rikers needs to be closed. We just can’t say ‘no.’ There’s a shared responsibility (in communities to help absorb the Rikers population).” Wong said he’s looking for a variety of concessions, including possible new affordable housing and community facilities. He also wants to see the jail entrance moved from Baxter Street to Centre Street for safety reasons (there have been prisoner escapes from the jail). Wong pointed out that the general area, with so many government buildings, has been plagued by placard parking. Any expansion plan, should address the parking situation, he said, along with the usage of the plaza between the two towers. It was meant for pedestrians, but has now been overtaken for parking.

There hasn’t been a lot of vocal opposition to the proposal so far. One local activist, however, is making his feelings loud and clear. Karlin Chan, a member of Community Board 3 told us in an email message, “I am totally against this idea.”

“My main concern,” said Chan, “is the added traffic and further loss of curbside parking our communities would suffer.  To accommodate 1500+ inmates, there must be added staff who, of course, will have parking placards. Our neighborhoods already suffer traffic congestion.”

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At the March meeting of Community Board 3, Chan asked Brewer about adding more community members to the task force. Brewer mentioned that Jacky Wong is a member, as well as Wellington Chen of the Chinatown Partnership. Local elected officials have been invited to attend. Another Lower East Side activist, Nancy Ortiz, tells us she has been asked to join the group. The Lo-Down has asked the borough president’s office for a list of task force members (it has not yet been supplied).

Brewer told Chan, “I take your suggestion very seriously, and the Chinatown community will be involved with everything.” He interjected, saying, “I’m more concerned, when you include non-profits, senior centers, they’ll fold at the first sight of money (in the form of community concessions).”

We reached out to State Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou’s office about the jail expansion plan. Along with other elected officials, she was briefed on the process, but a spokesperson said there were no specifics offered about the Manhattan facility. Niou made requests for community engagement and emphasized the importance of providing multi-lingual information during community meetings and outreach efforts. 

A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice said details about the community engagement process will be made public soon. The projects will go through ULURP, the city’s land use review process, including hearings before local community boards. There will also be a full environmental review in all of the impacted neighborhoods.