New York City

Closing Rikers: All the jails, all the demands

July 16, 2019 David Brand and Noah Goldberg
Rikers Island. AP file photo by Seth Wenig
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The community boards have voted and the borough presidents have weighed in. The city’s plan to close Rikers Island jails by 2026 — by building four new borough-based facilities via an unprecedented land-use measure — now moves to a fall vote in front of the City Council.

The city’s plan calls for building a new 1,150-bed jail in every borough except Staten Island. In order to do this, the proposal must go through a process called the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (or ULURP), which determines the size and use of property beyond what’s permitted by existing regulations.

This is far from a traditional land-use situation. For the first time, the city has packaged four different sites into a single ULURP application, rather than expose each plan to individual review. Local community boards and borough presidents are the first to weigh in, though their votes are purely advisory. Now that they have, the decision moves to the City Council, whose vote is legally binding.

The stances of the four City Council members who represent the neighborhoods in question are particularly important, because the council traditionally votes in lockstep with the local representatives on ULURP applications.

Between the community boards, the borough presidents and the City Council members, there are a lot of points of view at play. We’ve broken it down for you: Here are the four plans, the major players and the stances they’ve taken.

Boerum Hill, Brooklyn

A rendering by the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) of the new Brooklyn Detention Complex. Rendering courtesy of MOCJ.
A rendering by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice of the proposed Brooklyn jail. Rendering courtesy of MOCJ

Capacity: 1,150 beds

Height: 395 feet tall

Total Space: 1.19 million square feet, including 30,000 square feet of ground-level retail space.

Of note: The proposed facility would have 30,000 square feet of ground-floor retail, but community concerns from Atlantic Avenue businesses led Borough President Eric Adams to call for the space to be used not for retail, but for cultural organizations at discounted rents.

Councilmember: Councilmember Stephen Levin has not taken a position on the jail in his district and has never said which way he plans to vote. He has in the past echoed the concerns of his constituents that the proposed jail is too big and out of context within the neighborhood.

Borough president: Borough President Adams technically disapproved of the ULURP application, though he supports the borough-based jail plan. He asked for modifications — most significantly for a smaller jail, with a maximum 900 beds and 235-foot height, a drastic reduction. Adams also wants yoga, plant-based diets and nutrition education for incarcerated people, as well as increased alternatives to incarceration.

Community board: Brooklyn’s Community Board 2 first voted not to support a recommendation in favor of the ULURP, with suggested modifications. The recommendation failed by one vote. The board came back a month later and voted to disapprove the ULURP, though they again proposed changes: a new DOC facility to train officers, a culture change, and more community justice centers like the Red Hook Community Justice Center.

Kew Gardens, Queens

An aerial rendering of the originally proposed Queens facility. Courtesy of MOCJ.
A rendering by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice of the proposed Queens jail. Rendering courtesy of MOCJ

Capacity: 1,150 beds

Height: 270 feet tall

Total space: 1.258 million square feet, including a 676-space municipal parking lot

Of note: The Queens jail would house all women detained in New York City, as well as several hundred men.

Councilmember: Councilmember Karen Koslowitz supports the city’s plan, but her spokesperson said she is working with the Mayor’s Office to reduce the overall size.

Borough president: Queens Borough President Melinda Katz formally recommended disapproval in June. “A 1,500 person jail anywhere in Queens is unacceptable,” Katz said. She wants more community engagement and thinks the city can reduce its total jail population to 3,000 by 2026, enabling the city to construct a smaller community jail. (The city currently estimates a jail population of 4,000 by 2026).

Community board: Queens Community Board 9 unanimously voted in favor of a resolution rejecting the plan.

Mott Haven, the Bronx

An aerial rendering of the originally proposed Bronx facility. Courtesy of MOCJ
A rendering by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice of the proposed Bronx jail. Rendering courtesy of MOCJ

Capacity: 1,150 beds

Height:  245 feet tall

Total space: 1.27 million square feet, including 40,000 feet of ground-level retail space

Of note: Unlike the three other borough-based jails, the Bronx facility would not be located adjacent to the Bronx criminal courthouse. It would be located in an NYPD tow pound two miles away. The city said there is not enough space to build the jail near the courthouse.

Councilmember: Councilmember Diane Ayala supports the city’s plan and said the community board and borough president’s opposition is not representative of the overall community.

Borough president: Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. formally recommended disapproval. “Despite the seemingly well-intentioned motivation of these objectives, and despite my desire for the swift closure of Rikers Island, I must adamantly deny this proposal,” he said in his recommendation. Diaz Jr. agrees with the concept of the city’s plan, but not the location of the proposed Bronx jail. He wants it built next to the Bronx Hall of Justice

Community board: Bronx Community Board 1 unanimously voted in favor of a resolution rejecting the plan.

Chinatown, Manhattan

An aerial rendering of the originally proposed Manhattan facility. Courtesy of MOCJ
A rendering by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice of the proposed Manhattan jail. Rendering courtesy of MOCJ

Capacity: 1,150 beds

Height: 450 feet tall

Total Space: 1.145 square feet.

Of note: A senior center close to the proposed site has drawn the attention of the local councilmember and borough president, who have both called on the city to ensure that air quality and structure of the complex are protected during construction.

Councilmember: Councilmember Margaret Chin supported the mayor’s plan when it was first announced — but a spokesperson for Chin told the Eagle on Friday that the councilmember would now not commit to a borough-based jail in her district.

Borough president: Borough President Gale Brewer is the only BP to throw her support behind the ULURP application in a formal recommendation, though she has called for modifications. “There is substantial and understandable opposition to this project from the surrounding Chinatown community … However, because leaving a jail on Rikers Island is not an option, a solution must be found for a Manhattan jail in proximity to the courts while taking strong measures to mitigate adverse impacts on the neighboring community,” she said in her recommendation.

Community board: Manhattan Community Board 1 unanimously called for the city to disapprove of the ULURP application, though they support the idea of a borough-based jail plan. Modifications they called for included a Staten Island jail, a new plan based on criminal justice reforms enacted in Albany in April, and a robust plan to protect seniors living at Chung Pak Senior Center, which would abut the new jail.

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