City Council Approves Plan to Replace Rikers Island With Four Borough-Based Jails

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The New York City Council made a momentous decision Thursday intended to shutter Rikers Island and replace the infamous prison with four borough-based jails, including one at 125 White St. in Chinatown.

It was a hard-fought victory for Mayor de Blasio, who said after the Council voted 36-13 in favor of sweeping land use legislation, “Today we made history: The era of mass incarceration is over.” All four City Council members in the districts in which the new prisons will be built voted in favor of the controversial proposal, including District 1’s Margaret Chin.

In a statement, Chin said, “Above all, the effort to close Rikers is about enacting bold policy changes and building investments in marginalized communities to address the root causes of mass incarceration. These citywide investments signal an important step to reforming our broken criminal justice system while deepening support for the communities who need them the most – and that includes Lower Manhattan, which has housed the Manhattan Detention Center for decades.”

The Manhattan Detention Center will be demolished to make way for a larger jail facility. The new building, once envisioned as a 40-story tower, will now rise about 29 stories. In addition to hundreds of millions of dollars for alternatives to incarceration, the city will commit resources for various amenities in impacted communities. According to a press release from the Mayor’s Office, the concessions in Chinatown include:

–A new performing arts space within the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) at 215 Centre St. and “initial city support” for MOCA’s acquisition of a permanent home.

–Support for the Chung Pak senior housing development, which is located next door to the Manhattan Detention Center. There will be a 40 foot setback from the new building, a glass enclosure for Chung Pak’s terrace, air conditioning upgrades and a commitment from the city to extend the affordability of the building’s 88 affordable apartments. To protect the development’s ground floor commercial tenants, the city is committing $1.3 million in rent credits for Ching Pak during the construction period.

–Relocation help for small businesses which will be impacted by jail construction.

–$10 million in improvements in Columbus Park, including renovation of the pavilion and bathrooms.

Photo credit: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.

Photo credit: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.

While Thursday’s vote is a big step forward for the mayor’s plan, many challenges lie ahead. Constructing four large new jails and closing the sprawling Rikers complex by 2026 will be difficult. The plan is also expected to face legal challenges from neighborhood activists in all four boroughs.

Advocacy groups, including Neighbors United Below Canal, were dismayed by the decision. They were joined by the local state assemblywoman, Yuh-Line Niou. “By building new multi-billion dollar jails, without any binding legal guarantee to close Rikers Island,” said Niou, “the city is squandering the opportunity to decarcerate. We should be, with our resources, helping to break this failed model systematically designed to hurt not help our communities.” [The Council is working on land use legislation to prevent Rikers from being used as a prison in the future, but it will be a lengthy process.]

Other local activists were highly critical of the funding designated for the Museum of Chinese in America.

The city estimates it will cost $8.7 billion to build the new jails.

City Planning Commission Approves Borough-Based Jail Plan; City Council Hearing Thursday (Updated)

125 White St. - Manhattan Detention Complex.

125 White St. – Manhattan Detention Complex.

The City Planning Commission Tuesday voted in favor of the mayor’s plan to replace Rikers Island with four borough-based jails, including a large new prison complex at 125 White St. in Chinatown.

The commission voted 9-3 in favor of a sweeping land use proposal to build the new facilities. The City Council now has 50 days to approve or reject the plan. A hearing of a City Council subcommittee is scheduled for tomorrow (Thursday).

“With (Tuesday’s) vote,” said Mayor de Blasio, “we are one step closer to closing Rikers Island and creating a smaller, safer, fairer jail system. That’s one step closer to bringing people back to their communities and families, one step closer to ending the cycle of recidivism and one step closer to ending mass incarceration once and for all.”

The planning commission meeting was interrupted by protesters from the activist group, No New Jails NYC. Locally, Neighbors United Below Canal, a coalition in Chinatown, released a statement, noting that, “a number of the commissioners expressed serious reservations and concerns about this flawed application, from the use of design/build, to the site selection to the size, yet they chose to approve the plan, as is.  This is NOT city planning but a rubber stamp. If the CPC had done their jobs appropriately, they would have demanded changes, clarification and corrections.”

While details have been sketchy, city officials have outlined plans for a new jail complex in Chinatown that could rise 40 stories. The building would replace the current Manhattan Detention Complex.

Tomorrow’s City Council hearing begins at 10 a.m. It will take place in Council chambers at City Hall.

UPDATE 9/6/19 During Thursday’s hearing, City Council members repeatedly questioned city officials about the vagueness of the plans that have been disclosed.  Curbed reported:

Among those concerns is the proposed density of the new jails, which has emerged as a central concern for lawmakers whose districts are slated for those buildings. Lower Manhattan Councilmember Margaret Chin, whose district is set to receive a 450-foot building—the tallest of the jails—emphasized that height is a “big problem” for her and the neighboring Chinatown community.

Chin brought up a variety of concerns besides building height. These included protections for low-income seniors living near the proposed construction site, commitments from the city for community facility space and sketchy promises from the city to make improvements in neighboring Columbus Park.  As the Daily News noted, the Lower Manhattan Council member expressed concerns about receiving firm commitments from the de Blasio administration before the Council votes on the ULURP application within 50 days:

“I think in the coming weeks we’re going to have a lot of work to do,” said Council Member Margaret Chin (D-Manhattan), referring to concerns over the jail buildings’ heights, locations and community impact. “We have to get these answers and we have to get these commitments before we recommend.”