Plan to enlarge & redesign Brooklyn House of Detention moves forward with Council deal
Jail Would Be Brighter, Safer & Could Include Street-Level Retail
Under pressure to speedily replace Rikers Island with four smaller, safer municipal jails — including the Brooklyn Detention Center — city councilmembers have reached a highly unusual agreement with Mayor Bill de Blasio for a joint public review process.
The process, known as ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure), usually reviews only one land use project at a time. It involves a series of public hearings at the community and borough level followed by binding decisions by the mayor and City Council.
The agreement announced Wednesday, however, would review four proposed sites across the city — in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx — in one fell swoop.
The Brooklyn Detention Center (aka the Brooklyn House of Detention) on Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill currently houses roughly 800 inmates. It would be enlarged and redesigned under the proposal.
While designs have not been finalized yet, the jails would be safer for inmates and guards, brighter, less oppressive and could involve street-level development of retail, the city said.
In a statement, Councilmember Stephen Levin (Brooklyn waterfront from Greenpoint to Brooklyn Heights), indicated his support for the proposal, saying it was essential to close Rikers as quickly as possible.
“We understand that the boroughs, including Brooklyn, will be an important part of the solution, and I look forward to engaging with the community on what form that may take,” he said.
Levin’s spokesperson told the Brooklyn Eagle on Thursday that dates and times for a public engagement initiative are being set.
“This agreement marks a huge step forward on our path to closing Rikers Island,” de Blasio said at a press conference on Wednesday.
Moving inmates into jails in four different boroughs would put them closer to court houses, lawyers and families, de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said.
The administration’s plan involves enlarging and modernizing three existing Department of Correction facilities — the Brooklyn Detention Center, Manhattan Detention Center and Queens Detention Center — as well as developing a new jail in the Bronx on Concord Avenue, currently the site of an NYPD tow pound. No jail is planned for Staten Island.
The Bronx did not get advance notice of the siting, however, angering Bronx BP Ruben Diaz, Jr., who said Wednesday’s announcement was “disrespectful.”
The projects could cost billions, the mayor said.
Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, told reporters that jails can be civic assets. “They should be integrated into neighborhoods. They can have storefronts.”
It may not be smooth sailing, however. The jail was once considered a blight on Atlantic Avenue. Because of declining inmate population, the 11-story facility was closed in 2003, and local residents fought to keep it that way. In 2009, then-Comptroller William Thompson blocked the city from doubling its size. The jail partially reopened in 2008, and fully reopened in 2012.
Community Board 2 and other groups opposed the proposed 2009 expansion because of concerns about visitors loitering, allegedly leaving guns and contraband on nearby residents’ property, and double- and triple-parked cars.
CB2’s District Manager Robert Perris told Eagle reporter Rob Abruzzese in January that the jail has been a “good neighbor” in the 10 years since it reopened, so the board wouldn’t reject an expansion plan outright. However, it has still not decided if it is for or against the proposal.
The biggest issue that remains illegal parking-placard abuse by prison guards, Perris said.
City to ‘Pull Out All the Stops’
In the push to close Rikers within 10 years, the city intends to drive the process forward aggressively. An application could be submitted for certification by the end of 2018, and the design process could begin as early as next summer. The city has already brought on a firm to determine the best way to create the designs, the mayor said.
De Blasio said the city intended to “pull out all the stops” to get the jails built as soon as possible.
When asked about how the group ULURP would address the specific concerns of each affected neighborhood, Johnson said, “There does need to be meaningful community engagement, and that’s what the mayor’s staff and his commissioners are going to be doing with the councilmembers.”
But the mayor left no doubt that the city has already made its decision on the siting of the facilities.
“This is for the good of the whole city. This is a major reform,” he said. “That’s why we decided let’s do it all together, and that the sites are really – to us – the obvious sites and the necessary sites to act on.” He added, “But we’ll have a lot of community process.”
To Work, Jail Population Must Be Reduced
The mayor said the plan will only work if criminal justice reforms drive down the incarcerated population to roughly 5,000 – 6,000 inmates. Rikers currently houses 9,000 inmates. Existing borough jails have the capacity to house only approximately 2,300 people.
The city has launched several programs to reduce the jail population and is planning others. These include replacing short jail sentences for minor, low-level offenses with services; making it easier to pay bail; reducing technical parole violators; introducing ways to help judges more accurately assess flight risk; and reducing the number of women in jail. The city says it also intends to reduce the use of jails as mental institutions by getting the mentally ill the help they need outside of the corrections system.
In addition, the mayor said that every person in custody will be receiving re-entry services to help connect them with jobs and other opportunities, as well as five hours of vocational, educational and therapeutic programming per day.
In light of horrific incidents of violence against corrections officers, Department of Corrections Commissioner Cynthia Brann said that modern facility design “also helps our staff have enhanced sightlines so they can see what’s going on in a housing area and not be exposed to blind areas where they can’t control what goes on.”
Many of the reforms are based on recommendations by the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, chaired by former Chief Judge of the State of New York Jonathan Lippman.
Needed: ‘Design-Build’ to Speed Construction
De Blasio and Johnson said the city requires the state’s authorization to use a streamlined bidding process on the jail projects called “design-build,” which would shorten the timeframe on getting the facilities designed and built and save millions of dollars.
The design-build process merges the design and construction bids, usually bid separately on large projects, to speed the process.
“Design build is not the sexiest issue around, but it’s incredibly important,” de Blasio said. He gave as an example another massive project the city is trying to get design-build authorization for, the reconstruction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) Triple Cantilever, calling it “hugely important project for the future of the city.” Design-build authorization would allow the BQE project to be completed two years faster “and will save us I think between $100 and $150 million,” de Blasio said.
The state has been dragging its feet, however, on giving the city permission to use design-build on the BQE, to the despair of Brooklyn residents facing years of traffic jams should the state not approve its use.
Given the enmity between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the mayor, the state’s authorization of design-build on the jail project is far from certain. Johnson told reporters, however, that the governor “seemed open to it” — to which de Blasio interjected, “Hope springs eternal.”
Cuomo said in a statement on Wednesday that taking 10 years is too long to wait to close Rikers, and warned that the state could step in and close it if the city didn’t come up with a speedier plan.
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