Council received extensive testimony and differing perspectives on Borough Based Jails. On September 5, 2019, City Council’s Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting and Maritime Uses held a public hearing regarding the City’s application to close Rikers Island and create a Borough Based Jail System. The proposed sites are 124-125 White Street in Manhattan, 745 East 141St Street in the Bronx, 126-02 82nd Avenue in Queens and at 275 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.
The City’s applicant team consisted of Director Elizabeth Glazer and Deputy Director Dana Kaplan from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and Commissioner Cynthia Brann and Chief of Staff Brenda Cook from the Department of Corrections. Also present was the Department of Design and Construction’s Deputy Commissioner, Jamie Torres Springer.
In their opening statements to the Council, the application team espoused the ideology “Smaller, safer, fairer” as the overall goal of the project. It is their belief that this motto reflects the modern values of the City’s current criminal justice reform. The team stated that this application was a product of a receding incarceration rate in the City.
The application team made key changes to the plan to accommodate City Planning’s September 3rd, 2019, approval modifications. To see City Planning’s proposed changes, follow previous coverage here. The application team proposed an overall smaller jail system, based on the new bail reform set to take place in January. The team reduced height and density of all proposed facilities and in response to feedback, removed the medical annex from the Queens facility and removed the arraignment court from the Bronx facility. As a result of the changes, the project is expected to finish around 2026, a year earlier than the initial estimate.
The application team again emphasized four criteria in deciding the location of the facilities in their respective boroughs. They are (1) close proximity to the courthouse, (2) city-owned property, (3) transit accessibility and (4) a sufficient site area. The team admitted that three out of the four facilities met these criteria, but the Bronx site was lacking due to the distance from the courthouse. Per the Bronx facility, the team decided renovating the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center would still not be a viable option. The floating nature of the facility poses a myriad of issues. To see further detail of the site selection, see previous coverage here.
Upon the close of their presentation, the team met a mixed response from the Council and the 250 people who came to testify.
Chairperson Adrienne E. Adams of District 28 in Queens inquired into the overall timeframe for the project and the changing inmate population. A representative from the Department of Design and Construction responded that a full program management plan is in the works, but that creating four community facilities would be a major milestone. Corrections is projecting no more than 4,000 incarcerated by 2026. This is in large part due to the State bail reform.
Council Member Barry Grodenchik of District 23 in Queens also questioned the trustworthiness of the design-build process and the accuracy of the budget due to the very nature of the design-build process. The design-build process centralizes designers and contractors in a single entity to address issues and changes as they arise. During his questioning, Grodenchik pointed out that a new jail has not been built in New York City for over 30 years. A Department of Design and Construction representative stated that their team was lucky to use design-build for this project. It means they can use an experienced, integrated team, employ cost-effective measures and alter the plans without stop-work orders and schedule delays. This method will give the Department of Design and Construction the opportunity to provide “best in class services.” No state or federal dollars will be used to fund this project.
Council Member Rafael Salamanca Jr. of District 17 in the Bronx took strong opposition to the proposal. His first qualm was that it would create three jails within a three-mile radius, in his own district. He also questioned the Bronx site selection and whether real community feedback was used. The applicant claims to have inquired about a potential Sherman Avenue site. The fact that the lots are not contiguous purportedly creates multiple problems including line of sight, direct light, and smaller square footage, leading to an increased building height.
Council Member Margaret Chin of District 1 in Manhattan had concerns about how the construction would affect many of her own constituents, especially those associated with the Chung Pak complex. The Chung Pak complex provides affordable senior housing, community facility space and retail establishments in downtown Manhattan.
Chin requested that the application team take their mitigation plan very seriously in order to protect the senior citizens, their caregivers, and businesses from the negative effects of immense construction (i.e. noise, dust, traffic). She also requested the installation of a glass enclosure to ensure that senior citizens could still get sunlight during construction. The application team promised to continue working with Council Member Chin’s office and Chung Pak to make sure any and all issues would be settled.
Council Member Stephen T. Levin of District 33 in Brooklyn, where the Brooklyn facility will be located, asked about the borough’s current facility. The applicants explained that the current facility could not remain simply because it is outdated. There is a multitude of safety, climate control, and community programming issues that make the current facility unfeasible, even for renovation. While the application team states to have inquired about a Brooklyn Navy yard site, tearing down the current site and building anew proved to be the best option.
Council Member Karen Koslowitz of District 29 in Queens was critical over how the proposed site could affect the borough’s already turbulent traffic patterns. To address this concern, the team promised to add parking, conduct signal studies and to regularly conduct traffic monitoring through the facilities construction and tenure. The team hopes these efforts will help the facility seamlessly fit into the community.
Of the public comments, some of the most notable came from Judge Jonathan Lippman, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and Bronx Deputy Borough President Marricka Scott-McFadden.
Judge Lippman called this moment a “crossroads critical to the nature of New York City.” It is his belief that the Borough Based Jails option, is the only viable path for closing Rikers Island. Lippman stated that rejecting this plan would mean that Rikers would remain open for years to come. For more coverage on Judge Lippman’s criminal justice reform policy and efforts to close Rikers Island, watch his CityLaw Breakfast Q&A here or read the transcript here.
Borough President Brewer admitted that the initiative was overall beneficial to creating a better justice system but took issue with hulking nature of the structure. She pointed out that the City is asking for an additional 30 percent Floor Area Ratio (“FAR”) than currently zoned, but has provided no justification. Brewer also echoed Council Member Chin’s concerns for the Chung Pak community.
On behalf of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., Deputy Borough President Scott-McFadden characterized the application as “weaponizing” the land use process. She stated it ignored the Lippman report and that the wrong site was ultimately selected. While she believes Rikers needs to be closed, she stated that it “should be handled in the right way.”
The general public was in agreement that Rikers Island needs to be closed. Some were sheepish on the idea of creating four new jail facilities in their respective communities. Many voiced concern that community involvement and public commentary was minimal, if at all received or considered.
Many others view this application as an opportunity to expedite the closure of Rikers Island. Many of those same people see the creation of smaller jails, with smaller capacities, as an opportunity to hamstring the city’s ability to use incarceration as a form of punishment.
Due to extensive feedback and areas yet to be considered, the application was laid over by the Committee.
By: Jason Rogovich (Jason Rogovich is the CityLaw Fellow and New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2019)