New details on downtown jail plan

A rendering of the new jail the city plans to build at 124-125 White Street in Lower Manhattan, currently the site of the Manhattan Detention Complex. Image: Perkins Eastman

City to commence public land use review process for 450-foot-tall detention complex in Lower Manhattan

By Michael Garofalo

The administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio has shared new details regarding the contentious plan to build a new jail in Lower Manhattan — a crucial component of its effort to close the notorious Rikers Island jails — as it prepares to move forward with public review of the project.

The city’s proposal calls for the existing Manhattan Detention Complex at 124-125 White Street, known colloquially as the Tombs, to be demolished and replaced with a new, larger jail facility. The latest plans, detailed in a draft environmental impact statement issued March 22, contemplate a new 1.27 million square foot jail tower that would be 450 feet tall and have a capacity of 1,437 beds.

Administration officials said at a March 22 press briefing that the new jail’s proposed height and capacity were reduced in response to community concerns. Earlier plans called for a tower 45 feet taller and with 73 more beds.

These changes were announced as the city prepares to initiate the extensive uniform land use review procedure, or ULURP, for the project, which has encountered significant opposition from some Chinatown residents in recent months.

The proposed Manhattan jail is one of four new facilities that would replace Rikers Island, the violence-plagued and outdated East River complex that the administration has said it aims to permanently close by 2027. The three other new jails would be built in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens.

These borough-based jails would be built to modern design standards to increase safety and offer improved access to social services, re-entry programs and other resources. The new facilities, located near courthouses, would house individuals closer to their families and communities as they await trial, reducing the isolation, case delays and transportation costs associated with Rikers.

“We view this, as an administration, as a moral imperative,” said Elizabeth Glazer, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

The new Manhattan jail would connect to the adjacent New York County Criminal Court and would also feature 125 below-grade parking spaces and storefronts at street level. “There is room for retail, and that’s a very important part of the design of the jails to ensure that they integrate into the neighborhoods,” Glazer said.

Neighborhood concerns

Opposition to the project has centered on concerns with the new jail’s impact on public safety, traffic, parking and property values, among other issues. Local groups have also questioned how demolition and construction at the work site will impact residents of a senior housing building adjacent to the Manhattan Detention Complex.

Council Member Margaret Chin, whose district includes Chinatown and the site of the proposed facility, wrote on Twitter that she will not make a decision on whether to support the project until public concerns have been aired. “While my commitment to criminal justice reform remains unbroken, my first priority is the well-being, health and safety of the residents of our community,” she wrote, continuing, “In particular, we must have assurances that seniors living next door to the proposed project will be protected.”

Dana Kaplan, deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, said, “We want to make sure that we are responding to the neighborhood and community concerns that will continue to come up, and we take those very seriously, but I think it’s important to note that there is also broad support for this project at every level.”

Critics of the mayor’s Manhattan jail proposal have also focused on the site selection process, which they claim lacked transparency.

The de Blasio administration initially announced last summer that the new facility would be built at 80 Centre Street, and held a public scoping meeting in September to formally collect public comments. But in November the administration abruptly scrapped its plans for 80 Centre Street, announcing that the new facility would instead be built at the Manhattan Detention Complex site nearby. Controversially, the administration chose to proceed without resetting the scoping process to collect public comments on the new site, as some local activists and elected officials had requested.

“We believe that because the site was so close in proximity, and a number of other factors, that there was not a need for a new scope of work,” Kaplan said. “There are going to be multiple opportunities for public comment on 124-125 White Street throughout the ULURP process.”

The ULURP application to close Rikers and build four new borough-based jails will be subject to public input as it is reviewed by the applicable community boards and borough presidents, before heading to the City Planning Commission and then the City Council for a binding vote.